Concert Review: Neutral Uke Hotel at Brighton Music Hall in Allston, MA
Neutral Uke Hotel Rating:
Brighton Music Hall
April 20, 2011
Reviewed by: Dorise Gruber
I was doing some research on tribute bands, and for the most part I really like these “Ten Commandments of Tribute Bands” I found from MusicCookie.com. The only point I have any qualms with is Commandment II, which states that the characters must look like the original band. If I were going to replace that commandment with my own cardinal rule of tribute bands, it would be the following: Whilst covering songs and styles of an original band, thou shalt haveth a firm grasp on the fact that thou ist not, in fact, that band. If thou doth not bring thine own distinct style to the performance, thou ist doomed to a hellish reputation as a sub-par knock-off.
When you have an album as beloved as Neutral Milk Hotel’s Anne Frank-inspired In the Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998), a tribute band has potential to be either fantastic or terrible, depending on whether or not they follow the fundamental tenets of tribute-band-dom. At the sold-out Brighton Music Hall on Wednesday, Neutral Uke Hotel’s Shawn Fogel and fellow bandmates were not trying to *be* Neutral Milk Hotel, nor were they attempting impersonation. Fogel stated up front that the goal of the show was to create an enormous sing-along to unite fellow Neutral Milk Hotel fans, playing their concept album start to finish. This was designed as a nostalgic jamboree delivered by a band that didn’t take themselves too seriously. Mangum’s tortuous visions led to potent lyrics and vigorous delivery, a grisly voice over horns and blown-out guitars. Were there a few moments where the sound of the ukes felt a little thin by comparison? Sure. Were there times where you really missed the static acoustics of the original album? Of course, but that’s not the point. Fogel’s voice is buttery, and Neutral Uke Hotel’s delivery is quirky and pretty – distortion wouldn’t have done them any favors. Neutral Uke delivered exactly what I’d want from a tribute band playing an album I adore – true to the music, but unique enough to not sound like bad karaoke.
I think what really sold me on the show, besides loving Neutral Milk Hotel and really respecting the tribute style, were the acts before Neutral Uke. I only caught the last song or so of cute female crooner Rocky Rock, but Golden Bloom was a really tight indie pop band with powerhouse vocals, and while Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library was perhaps more theatrical than it was musical, a few songs really came together as something special. The “Memorial Library” component of the latter band was actually 7 ladies in “Mad Men”-esque attire. The lady instrumentalists were geared in polka-dots and horn-rimmed glasses, and backed up Epstein with vocals, bass, flute, viola, ukulele, drums, xylophone, melodica, cowbell, thumb piano, and rainsticks. Epstein himself is a pretty curious looking character, with one serious-business moostachio. Both bands thanked the guys from Neutral Uke Hotel for letting them play the show (Epstein playfully referred to Neutral Uke members as “shady”), so the fun twist for those not in-the-know was that Neutral Uke Hotel *was* the Golden Bloom guys + Michael Epstein. Knowing that they were clearly talented musicians without needing to hide behind cover-band curtains gave them infinitely more credibility – you wanted to like them, so having their original bands on the bill really strengthened the group as a headlining act. The “Memorial Library” girls even joined the fellows on stage with ukes for an encore scattered with originals and other Neutral Milk Hotel covers. All told, this was a really fun show.
Short of spending $300 on a scalped Jeff Mangum ticket at one of his recent scant pop-ups around the country, spending my evening with a Neutral Milk Hotel-themed campfire-style performance has proven a pretty great alternative. Although – if any of you want to offer up your ticket to see Mangum at Sanders Theatre or Jordan Hall in Fall, I certainly won’t turn you down.
***<nerd-out> Postscript: in digging around the Golden Bloom website I discovered that Shawn Fogel is in The Zambonis, “North America’s Favorite All-Hockey Band”. If he has anything to do with the song “Hockey Monkey” he automatically gets promoted to “genius” filing in my book. <\nerd-out>