Neutral Milk Hotel
With Elf Power
First Avenue, Minneapolis
February 10, 2014
Neutral Milk Hotel spent their entire career flying comfortably under the pop culture radar. But in the 15 years since they disbanded, their music has taken on a mythical quality. A devoted new batch of listeners has taken the cloistered story of lead singer Jeff Mangum to their collective heart. So, how exactly does Neutral Milk Hotel deal with the colossal expectations of fans who have been waiting their entire lives to see them play live?
On Monday night at a sold-out First Avenue, the band delivered a passionate 80-minute set that gave a rollicking modern edge to material that hasn't grown dusty at all over the years.
See Also: Jeff Mangum at State Theatre, 02/04/12
After a heavy dose of Boredoms as the pre-show music, Mangum casually strolled on stage to start the show. Most of these fans had never seen Mangum in person before -- unless they attended his glorious solo show at the State two years ago -- and up to this point, he'd only existed as a fragile voice on their stereos. But once he sang the opening strains of "Two-Headed Boy," the club was completely his.
Mangum was quite a bit more unkempt than he was at the State, with a long, messy beard, scraggly hair tucked under a baseball hat, and his traditional woolen winter sweater. As the stellar opening number wound down, the rest of the band (and guests including Elf Power's Laura Carter) quickly joined him. Julian Koster picked up an accordian, drummer Jeremy Barnes settled in behind his kit, and Scott Spillane picked one of his many horns set up in front of him. They eased into the swelling, funereal orchestration of "The Fool," with Jeff conducting the band with twists and turns of his guitar.
The set was a well-paced sweep of emotional bursts. The band wasted little time between songs, despite the continued changes in instruments and lineups. Koster was in great spirits throughout the set, bouncing along with Mangum to the rollicking beats of "Holland, 1945," which built in tempo as it stormed on, threatening to dissolve entirely as it came to a fitful end. Just as he did at the State, Jeff offered warm thank-yous between songs while holding his hand affectionately over his heart. (People were instructed before the show not to take pictures of any kind, and it was refreshing to see an entire crowd completely lost in the moment with no cell phones to be seen).
"A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You" continued the strong start, with Koster adding a ghostly bowed saw to the song's sentimental core, while the rich, brassy horns gave the tracks a regal flourish. "Gardenhead" found Mangum and Koster bouncing around the stage, clearly feeling the spirit of the song. And while many of these numbers had melancholy, mournful undertones (especially given the Anne Frank storyline that inspired the lyrics), the simple fact that Neutral Milk Hotel were playing these songs live, at long last, gave them an exultant quality.
"Leave Me Alone" and "Everything Is" were amped up, with heavy effects on Jeff's guitar and the band delivering rambunctious accompaniment. A moving, accordian-drenched take on "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One" found Mangum in full voice, with each slight emotional waver in his vocals adding to the raw sentiment. The song quickly transitioned into "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three," with Koster's bowed banjo giving the track a disconsolate spirit that gradually blossomed into a robust horn melody.
"All secrets sleep in winter clothes," Mangum sang affectionately in a truly moving version of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," one of many lines that resonated with an audience all too familiar with the crippling effects of the colder months and how that can cause us all to retreat within ourselves for warmth and comfort. As the deafening ovation died down a bit, Mangum again held his hand over his heart, saying, "Thank you, my good friends." Koster then took a moment to express his appreciation to everyone who braved the brutally cold weather to come out to the show: "Thank you to all of you who stood out in a cold line today just to be up front. We're all in awe of your devotion, honestly."
"Naomi" again found the band jumping in time to the track's towering beats, while the slow-burning start of "Ferris Wheel on Fire" gradually blossomed into a wall of guitars and discordant electronic din. Fan shout-outs during the show were kept to a minimum due to the fluid pacing of the set, but a call of "Be My Dad" and "I'm so happy" had the band smiling. And while the band ceded the stage to Jeff for another solo take, someone in the crowd urged Mangum on as he readied himself for the song. "Do it!" they cried, and he responded jokingly, "I'm going to do it. We'll see what happens." And what happened was a heart-stopping, epic version of "Oh Comely." Jeff unleashed his graphic string of vivid, twisted images alone on stage, taking us into the unsettled heart of his dreams/nightmares.The rest of the band joined him toward the end, singing along while adding layers to the mournful melody.
A loose version of "Song Against Sex" soon followed, but after such an epic, stunning moment, the song was just far too frayed at the edges to fully coalesce. A boldly experimental take on "Ruby Bulbs" featured a free jazz cacophony that flowed into a moving and gorgeous version of "Snow Song Pt. 1," which ended the main set on an absolute high. As the golden horns resonantly rang out in the stone silent club, Mangum and the band seemed frozen in place, transported as we all were to somewhere far better than here. A well-earned ovation saw them off, with Jeff again thanking the crowd, "Thank you, my friends. You've been amazing. Good night."
After a brief break, the band returned for a potent four-song encore that began with a glorious version of "Ghost," as the band swelled to a seven-piece to add texture to the track's spiraling emotions. The track quickly shifted into the untamed jam, "[untitled]," which had a Scottish lilt to it, just minus the bagpipes. After a quick bowed saw intro from Koster, the rest of the band again left Mangum alone on stage for a touching version of "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two," which completed the melancholy tale he had begun at the start of the show, bringing the set full circle.
Spillane then spoke to the crowd for the first time, "Thank you for coming. It's not a night fit for man nor beast. And we'd like to play a lullaby for you to send you off into the cold night. It's called 'Engine.'" And with that, the band ended the show with the touching, sobering tones of "Engine," as the horns echoed over Koster's somber saw tones and Barnes's elegant accordian. It was the perfect way to say good night. "Thank you so much for listening to our music," Mangum said tenderly as he left the stage. "We never thought so many people would like it. We're quite moved. Sweet dreams." And indeed, getting to see Neutral Milk Hotel play live was certainly a dream come true.
Personal Bias: It took a while for In The Aeroplane Over the Sea to find its way into my heart, but once it did I was forever moved. But sadly, I never saw the band live back in the day -- so this was my first chance to hear these songs come to life (other than Jeff's stunning State Theatre show).
The Crowd: As respectful a crowd as I've seen at First Avenue in quite a while. No cell phones, no talking -- just all of us collectively lost in the music being made on stage.
Overheard in the Crowd: "What do you mean I can't bring my drink downstairs." (It was an all-ages show).
Random Notebook Dump: Openers Elf Power delivered a rousing opening set that set the mood perfectly for the headliners. The Athens, Georgia five-piece played a 40-minute set filled with songs from their new album, Sunlight on the Moon, as well as plenty of older classics, including their closing number, "The Arrow Flies Close," which featured NMH's Spillane on backing vocals/horn, ending their performance on a special note.
A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
In the Aeroplane Over The Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Song Against Sex
Snow Song Pt. 1
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two