Monday, April 25, 2011

Neutral Uke Hotel Unites Obsessed NMH Fans.

(Picture by Cindy Waffles)
In the 1990s, the indie world was given a rare musical gift in the form of Jeff Magnum and his band, Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH). Unfortunately, NMH broke up in the late 90s, and now fans can never see them live again. However, they CAN see Shawn Fogel's brainchild cover band, Neutral Uke Hotel, whose mission is "to unite obsessed fans of Neutral Milk Hotel for a live performance of their critically acclaimed, 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' album" (and, sometimes, a few other popular NMH songs as well.. always stay for encores!).

I recently attended a Neutral Uke Hotel concert, with Cindy Waffles of, at Cameo Gallery in Williamsburg, a little hidden art gallery by day, music venue by night spot, located in the back of the The Lovin' Cup Cafe.  Cindy and I were amazed at how close Fogel comes to sounding like Magnum (admittedly, I never saw NMH live, but I have listened frequently to NMH's albums). If you close your eyes, you can practically picture Jeff Magnum on his guitar, except that when you open them it's Shawn Fogel, and he is playing a soprano ukulele.

Neutral Uke Hotel (Picture by Cindy Waffles)
Yes, Neutral "Uke" Hotel is known not only for its splendid ability to cover NMH, but to do so with ukuleles. Neutral Uke Hotel encourages fans of NMH to clap, stomp and sing along as they play Aeroplane in its entirety. (Some fans suggest that Aeroplane is truly a very special album, not just because of the complexity of the sound produced by NMH and the powerfulness of the lyrics, but because the album seems to be, at least in part, a tribute to Anne Frank and her tragic experience during the Holocaust. You wouldn't necessarily know this if you weren't told, but once you re-visit the album with that potential interpretation in mind, and listen to tracks such as "Holland, 1945," it becomes even more beautiful).

Shawn Fogel on Ukulele (Picture by WGINY)
At the Cameo Gallery show, Fogel played the soprano ukulele while Michael J. Epstein, of The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, played baritone ukulele. Other accompanying instruments and performers included Josh Cohen on the melodia, Matt Gerard on trumpet and baritone, and Andrew Lawback on drums. Fogel's solo performance on "Oh Comely," a track from Aeroplane, left some avid fans yelling, "Holy Shit!"

Fogel also had a lot of patience and was quick to provide some humorous banter with the audience when the venue's sound equipment refused to work. Unfortunately, Neutral Uke Hotel is not playing in NYC again anytime soon, but you can always take the Chinatown Bus or NJ Transit to Philadelphia and catch them at World Cafe Live Wednesday night, April 27. As Fogel said at the Cameo Gallery show, "It's not everyday you get to celebrate your favorite record with strangers."

The MJE Memorial Library (Picture by Cindy Waffles)

I also must point out opening band, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, a band I had never before heard of, but which really blew me away. I walked out of the night's show with their album in hand. The music of MJE (not to be confused with the Manhattan Jewish Experience...) was catchy, fun and bouncy. They also incorporated use of ukulele, as well as a fiddle, which I found to be one of the group's highlights. Lead singers Michael J. Epstein and Tayna Palit blended well in perfect harmony, often backed up by the harmonizing vocals of their six piece band. Over and over again during their performance, the band churned out hip and fun songs about everything from love to evil space sharks... Their outfits were trendy (in that hipster way we all hate to love) and color-coordinated, and each band member wore fitting sexy-nerd library glasses. They had an indie rock/pop feel, and my favorite song of their set was Holy Ghost.

Golden Bloom (Picture by WGINY)
Before Neutral Uke Hotel took the stage, Fogel also played a set with (er, as...) his current band, Golden Bloom, sampling both new and old songs, in somewhat of a garage-rock style, while mellowing out on certain love songs. I really liked one tune about never knowing where you'll find love, but I do not know the song's name. (On his website, Fogel defines the band as "indie power pop"... I guess I can see that...).

Grand Finale (Picture by Cindy Waffles)

At the end of the night, all of the bands got back on stage, together, and rocked out with the audience members. I must say that Tanya Patil, of MJE, is full of charisma and stage presence. All in all Neutral Uke Hotel and its opening acts put on a stellar display of music at Cameo Gallery and I look forward to uniting with obsessed NMH fans (and NUH fans) next time Shawn Fogel and his ukulele are in town.

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