Social-media blackout lets First Avenue music fans concentrate on magic moments

Neutral Milk Hotel's notice at First Avenue.
MinnPost photo by Jim WalshNeutral Milk Hotel’s notice at First Avenue.

Fans attending last week’s Neutral Milk Hotel shows at First Avenue were met by signs that read, “For Tonight’s Neutral Milk Hotel Show: No Photography/No Video Recording Allowed/This Includes Cell Phones.”

The same message was broadcast on the small screens around the club and on the big screen in front of the stage, reminding the gathered hundreds to, as Neko Case once tweeted, “Just put the phone away and watch the show.”

So I have no photos or video of NMH to share, no memories to scroll through on my phone, and no problem.

While a few may have lamented the lost chance to document the experience of being in the same room with one of indie rock’s most beloved cult bands, I and the few members of the crowd I informally polled about the no photos/phones policy were happy to engage in a live show that felt more like a music hall of yore than a rock club at the turn of technology.

I’d like to go on record as saying I’m all in favor of this new golden age we’re living through, a time when we document absolutely everything we can get our lusty lenses and prurient prisms on and then flood the world with perfect/arty/blurry images of friends and strangers making or hearing music. I also appreciate the fact that exactly two photographs exists of one of the most mystical and important musicians of all time, the great bluesman Robert Johnson, especially now, when if it wasn’t caught, captured, Snapchatted, Instagrammed, taxidermied, and presented to the world it didn’t happen or exist.

Ergo, we’ve all become amateur Alec Soths and Dan Corrigans  — the latter of whom recalls here the “mind-boggling” sight of a sea of cell phone viewfinders capturing a Hanson concert at First Avenue a few years ago.

 That wasn’t the case at the Neutral Milk Hotel shows, which struck a blow for old-school paying attention and being present, not reporting back to the insatiable social media maw going on outside the walls of the club.

In her terrific ode to being here now, “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman writes: “When we describe ourselves as ‘sentient’ beings (from Latin sentire, ‘to feel,’ from Indo-European sent-, ‘to head for,’ ‘go’; hence to go mentally) we mean that we are conscious. The more literal and encompassing meaning is that we have sense perception.”

Heightened sense perception and total consciousness are two of the regularly achieved states of the live-music lover, which is purportedly why, along with maintaining visual aesthetics and protecting listeners’ rights, Prince and other artists have banned photography at their concerts. Which comes to the chagrin of the many, of course, whose real-time sharing of photos, videos and opinions has become part of the concert-going experience itself.

Still, I couldn’t remember the last show I went to where the “no photography” edict was so well received. Embraced, even. I went to both Neutral Milk Hotel shows alone and didn’t talk to many people, so I was able to observe the crowd, the majority of whom left their phones in their pockets and conversed before the bands came on.

When Neutral Milk Hotel and the opener, Elf Power, hit the stage, the undivided attention and rapt ears in one of the best clubs in the world made for as memorable concert environs as it gets, largely because Neutral Milk Hotel insisted that the music and the listener be at the forefront of the concert experience.

Like I said, I’m not so precious or persnickety to get bugged by someone recording the concert and not really listening, etc. But I also know the value of being at a show with nothing on my agenda but taking in the music with as little distraction as possible. As a former daily newspaper pop music critic, I know for a fact that there’s a big difference between knowing you’re there to render an on-deadline opinion rather than allowing the show to unfold before you and within you.

Which is what I did with Neutral Milk Hotel, most memorably the second night, when I wanted to get as close to the stage as possible for “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” a song I know by heart and have a deep history with. After scouting out a couple of my favorite spots, I ended up near the backstage area, with a good view of the band and the crowd’s beatified faces. When the familiar opening D-A-E-G chords rang out, a shriek from the crowd went up, and as the song unfurled, the entire front section, released from the slavery of their cell phone cameras and forced to focus on this rare performance of this rare song, sang along to every word:

What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun…
And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly
In the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see

I had no camera or notepad, and so I, too, was left to consider nothing but the sound of music and the special sight of those faces, glowing in the footlights and singing in communion this holy generational hymn. I looked around the club and saw hundreds of others doing the same thing.

It occurred to me in that moment that, had I been busy fussing with my phone or camera, I wouldn’t have seen what I saw, nor would I be bearing witness and reporting it back to you here, with only words at my disposal, about a moment that for me will remain indelible, unforgettable, and personal in a way that a hastily snapped photo never could.

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