Neutral Uke Hotel @ Schubas 4-23-11

Back in August of last year, I covered a show the likes of which I had never seen before. It was my first real show after moving to Chicago, and my first gig writing for a music blog (Chicago Tunes). The headliner was Remaindermen, who I had kicked off a relationship with the week prior. The rest of the lineup I was completely unaware of.

I saw a flyer the day before the show that had all four bands listed, and I was immediately perplexed. Sandwiched between Chicago’s Angel Olsen and DC’s True Womanhood was a band called Neutral Uke Hotel. I thought it was a misprint at first. I googled the name and stumbled upon this:

Neutral Uke Hotel’s mission statement is simple: to unite obsessed fans of Neutral Milk Hotel for a live performance of their critically acclaimed “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” album, played in its entirety on ukulele by Shawn Fogel, with accompaniment from members of Golden Bloom and The Motion Sick.

I read it a few times to make sure I understood. My initial reaction was one of sheer horror. How could a band play these songs on ukulele’s? Why would a band play them on ukulele’s? As a fan of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, I was shocked by how fast and loose this concept played with my emotions. Then I clicked on a video link…

Any fears that I had were swept away immediately when I heard the first notes of “King of Carrot Flowers pt 1” played. Not only did it sound good, it sounded “right.” It was then that I decided even if the show ends up being a trainwreck, I support the idea.
Luckily the show was not only the opposite of trainwreck, it was the best show I saw all year. That list included some pretty great live sets I saw performed, none of which captured the magic that Neutral Uke Hotel had on stage. So I anticipated seeing them again as soon as possible, and to my great elation the wait was only eight months and not eight years.

The show at Schubas kicked off with The Michael J Epstein Memorial Library playing about thirty minutes. An interesting blend of soft country influenced indie pop, I was surprised how entertaining the first set was. Maybe because I’m often let down by openers I hear good things about, but MJEML didn’t disappoint.

Mike’s banter with the audience was fun and charming, even if we fundamentally disagree on the point of dolphins v sharks. The harmonies between Mike and vocalist Tanya Palit were very good, which was a blessing as they both sang on every song. And the band, which was large, seemed pretty tight. On top of the usual guitar/bass/drum setup, MJEML also includes a flautist and a viola player, adding depth to songs that, honestly, were good without them but made better with their addition. A great opener for the evening, their album, Volume One, comes out May 10th and I urge you to buy a copy.

Second to the stage was Golden Bloom. This band is Shawn Fogel’s brainchild, and it’s full to the brim with pop sensibilities. The band also features a great guitarist, who had sparks flying out of his fretboard all night.
Golden Bloom has been around a few years, and they played some songs that I knew, as well as some new songs from their EP March To The Drums. This set was even better than the first, and I think a lot of it had to do with the style of music they play. Shawn is a little more animated on stage than Mike, and the benefit of having a talented axman really pays off on the energy the crowd gets.

After a brief reset, Neutral Uke Hotel took to the stage. The band was a bit larger this time, adding horn player and keyboardist Matt Gerard and the drummer from Golden Bloom to the original lineup of Shawn Fogel, Michael Epstein, and Josh Cohen.

The addition of Gerard, in particular, was an immediate success. As soon as he started playing on “King of Carrot Flowers pt 2,” I knew he was going to be a great acquisition for the group. The percussion, while not as essential, to me, did make all the songs more fully realized, and I think the crowd picked up on the importance of each member.
This is a hard concert to go into much detail about, because it really is something you need to experience for yourself. I can say, with great confidence, that you’ve never seen or heard anything like it before. It’s a sing-a-long celebration of one of the greatest albums of all-time, and those who attend the shows generally leave with a smile on their face.

We were right in the front, and I could hear the audience better than I could the guys on stage, and that’s kind of the whole point. Neutral Uke Hotel exists solely to give audience members a place to join two hundred like-minded individuals and sing songs you all love.

From the beginning of” King of Carrot Flowers pt 1″ all the way through the end of “Two-Headed Boy pt 2,” the band and the audience are one. I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my day, and I’ve never been a part of anything like it.

When they finished playing the album, the crowd erupted. Everyone was so happy and fulfilled, but there was more still. To close the night out the band played a couple songs, one by Golden Bloom, “Doomsday Devices” and Motion Sick’s “30 Lives,” which is the greatest Contra-related song ever.

It was a magical night. One that I hope gets repeated at least once a year until I’m too old to enjoy screaming and being around a bunch of young people. It also served as a great introduction, for most, to two bands that I sincerely hope everyone checks out. Many people surrounding me were saying this was the greatest show they’d ever seen, and I find it very hard to disagree.

For more on Neutral Uke Hotel, check out the interview I conducted with Shawn and Mike prior to the show.

Also, for a great introduction to NUH, The Motion Sick and Golden Bloom, download the Daytrotter Session they did last year. It’s my favorite Daytrotter of all-time.