Words / Photos: Alex Wood (see Alex's Friday night review here)
Before Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum appeared on the stage at the Riviera, it was clear that the show was to be one of a kind.
Three hand saws of various lengths lay propped against Julian Koster’s amplifier at the front of the stage, arranged from smallest to largest. Trumpets, trombones, mellophones, French horns, baritones, accordions, keyboards, synthesizers and a banjo are scattered across the stage.
The house music grew increasingly intense, matching the air of excitement and high expectations of the audience.
The lights dimmed and Mangum walked on stage to enormous applause, the mystical figure reduced to a middle-aged man with an untamed beard and thick sweater.
Knowing Neutral Milk Hotel’s back-story is essential in understanding the momentous caliber of their reunion dates. After the quick and surprising success of modern masterpiece and second full-length In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, Mangum disappeared for a decade.
As the legend and influence of the band and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea grew to mammoth proportions, Mangum remained mostly silent until suddenly appearing for scattered solo shows throughout 2012 and 2013, choosing only small venues despite high demand.
Apparently satisfied with his quiet return, Mangum brought Neutral Milk Hotel back for roughly a year. No new music would be released, and no huge venues would be played outside of a few festival dates.
Earlier this week, the singer announced three more east coast dates in July, calling them the last in the area “for the foreseeable future.” Alas, all good things must end.
But anyways, back to the show.
Mangum opened with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1,” the sheer energy of his frantic, acoustic barre-chords unable to match the power of his voice, the words released with such force that the microphone hardly felt necessary.
As Mangum hangs on to the song’s last words indefinitely, the band members appear from the dark backdrop, silhouettes slowly approaching the spotlight shining on the singer.
The waltz-time of the drums marks the beat and “The Fool” follows as it would on record, the audience practically gasping from the amount of noise emitted from the four-piece band and its guest members.
Two accordion players dance across stage as three trumpets blare the melody. Mangum steps back, satisfied and smiling, watching the band perform.
As the fuzzy, distorted acoustic guitar of “Holland, 1945” follows, it becomes clear that this isn’t a Jeff Mangum show. This is Neutral Milk Hotel and things will get loud.
The set list contained a perfect sense of flow, balancing lighter, acoustic moments of songs like “Oh Comely” and “A Baby For Pree” with the loud, lo-fi rock of tracks like “Song Against Sex” and “Gardenhead.”
Among the three additional guests was longtime collaborator Laura Carter, adding trumpet and zanzithophone, an electronic saxophone displayed prominently on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
Mangum spoke to the crowd only once, prior to “Oh Comely.”
“Chicago’s where I met Jeremy by the way,” he said, an awkward, tentative character to his voice. “I asked him to drop out of school and he said yes.”
The show climaxed appropriately at the end of the set with “Ruby Bulbs” and “Snow Song Pt. 1,” showcasing the diverse instrumental talents of the band members and creativity of songwriting.
“Ruby Bulbs,” among Neutral Milk Hotel’s oldest tracks, features Mangum yelling the lyrics with impossible volume over piles of noise made by singing saw, trombone, mellophone and synthesizer, the sheer power of the combined instruments’ carefully dissonant accompaniment practically shaking the walls of the venue.
As the music reaches an unbearable intensity, Spillane switches to mellophone to deliver a gorgeous melody, the background noise disappearing momentarily for a feeling of resolution, only to return with a massive drum beat, the prior dissonance becoming a majestic backing, as though one melody encapsulates Neutral Milk Hotel’s triumphant return to the stage.
The band walked off stage, leaving the audience flabbergasted with ears ringing, uncertain whether anything could top such a performance.
Yet, in continuing the set list’s flawless flow, the encore came like a kick in the head.
“Ghost” was performed as the gigantic rock song it is, Spillane singing along and dancing to himself as Barnes’ drums grow faster and faster until the drumheads can hardly stand the beating. “Untitled” packs a surprising punch live with its celebratory, danceable feel and spills into the singing saw intro and gentle beauty of “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” bringing the show full circle from the opener. “Engine” felt like an added bonus from the band, and suddenly it was all over.
What could have been a campy, unnecessary reunion proved itself a gigantic success, the band playing with the same conviction they would have in ’96 and the music sounding as fresh and original as ever.
Longtime friends and fellow Elephant 6 band Elf Power opened the show fittingly, their set featuring an abundance of older songs from their days with Neutral Milk Hotel. Highlights included a performance of “The Arrow Flies Close” featuring Scott Spillane and a cover of Olivia Tremor Control’s “Jumping Fences” dedicated to the recently deceased Bill Doss.
1. Two-Headed Boy
2. The Fool
3. Holland, 1945
4. A Baby For Pree / Where You’ll Find Me Now
5. Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
6. Everything Is
7. The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
8. The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3
9. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
11. Ferris Wheel On Fire
12. Oh Comely
13. Song Against Sex
14. Ruby Bulbs
15. Snow Song Pt. 1
18. Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
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