Neutral Milk Hotel | Elf Power The Blue Note, Columbia 10/16/13
Here's why this show was so important: In all the myth-building around Jeff Mangum, including his two full-length albums and his fifteen-year absence from the music scene, it's all too easy to forget that he didn't create that music in isolation. Neutral Milk Hotel may have started as the nom de plume for Mangum's cassette projects, but by 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it was a band. They were his songs, but without Scott Spillane, Julian Koster and Jeremy Barnes, those songs would have been very different, probably for the poorer. Live, this quartet built a reputation as one of the very best live bands working the circuit. Often messy, usually inspiring, the Neutral Milk Hotel live experience was key to understanding the grotesque and wondrous visions behind the songs.
For this reason, Mangum's solo shows don't quite capture the essence of what NMH was all about. When he played at the Sheldon Concert Hall in January, it was a welcome opportunity to hear some great songs live for the first time since the Clinton years. At the same time the hushed format of the performance was a little too somber and reverential. As someone who was lucky enough to catch the original band in the late 1990s, I missed the feeling of being wrung dry by set's end.
Last night, with the whole band in tow, Neutral Milk Hotel brought back that vibe. Mangum opened the set by himself with "Two Headed Boy" from Aeroplane. Slowly, the rest of the band shuffled to their instruments. After Mangum finished the song, Barnes tapped his sticks, and all of a sudden there was a bass, a violin and a full horn section for the instrumental "The Fool."
If nothing else, the band format enabled Mangum to step away from center stage. For most of the set, he stood on the far right of the stage, often stepping back during instrumental passages. In the 1990s Mangum would often throw himself around the stage, bobbing back and forth forcefully. These days, still in his trademark cap and thrift-shop sweater, he stands much stiller, only breaking out into more dramatic movements on occasion. Hey, we've all slowed down some since 1998.
In fact, it was the Amish-bearded Spillane who took on the bandleader role. Like Black Flag's Chuck Dukowski, he set the tone of the performance: singing along to every song off-mic, providing eerie horn lines when needed, bantering with other band members and the audience, and generally hamming it up. If Mangum remained a cipher -- he says very little between songs and doesn't do interviews -- then Spillane was the one who kept things down to earth and relatable.
Meanwhile, Julian Koster, who hasn't visibly aged in a decade and a half, played singing saw and bass, bouncing around excitedly in a circle. Barnes remains every bit the powerful drummer he was in the late 1990s, with plenty of bobbing, weaving and accenting. Friends and associates drifted on- and offstage, often contributing keyboard or horn parts before retreating to stage left. There were no new songs, but every song the band did play sounded utterly vital and contemporary. There was no feeling of a cash-grabbing reunion. Rather, it sounded and felt like old friends who'd re-formed only to find that the old chemistry remained.
The whole concert felt celebratory, although not without its challenging moments. As on 1986's On Avery Island and the early live shows, the familiar hit songs were often preceded or interrupted by freeform noise. On less-familiar songs such as "Ferris Wheel on Fire" and "Ruby Bulbs," Mangum resorted to full-on screaming while the band created discordant, improvised layers. This added some extra tension to the performance, as well as a willingness in the band to challenge themselves even within familiar material. This lineup could create an amazing third album.
After closing the set proper with "Snow Song Pt. 1," the B-side of the first seven-inch single, the band returned to play the last three songs from Aeroplane. "Ghost" and "Untitled" were everything you'd want them to be, and Mangum returned to the solo format for a closing with "Two Headed Boy, Part 2." The whole band returned for an encore of "Engine," which Spillane referred to as a lullaby.
Continue to page two for the rest of the review, plus the setlist.
Of all the many indie-rock reunions, Neutral Milk Hotel always seemed one of the least likely. For a long time it was unclear whether Mangum would ever return to public performance. Even after he did, the idea of reuniting with the other band members seemed far-fetched at best. However, after this Blue Note set, it all seems perfectly logical. There was hardly a better live band between 1996 and 1998; the same is true today. If you can possibly help it, do not miss the St. Louis show scheduled for February 2014.
Critic's Notebook: - Yes, there were sing-alongs. Yes, I spotted more than a few tears (and got somewhat verklempt myself during "Naomi"). What am I going to do, put people down for being moved by a live show? At least no one stole Mangum's water or throat spray this time. (I actually met the culprits who did this, but they were too nice for me to get too angry about it.)
- Elf Power was an appropriate opening act. This Athens, Georgia, band was NMH's frequent touring partner, as well as fellow member of the Elephant 6 collective. Unlike the headliners, Elf Power does have a fine new album to sell, and they played much of it tonight.
Setlist: 1) Two-Headed Boy 2) The Fool 3) Holland, 1945 4) Where You'll Find Me Now 5) Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone 6) Everything Is 7) King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1 8) King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 and 3 9) In The Aeroplane Over the Sea 10) Oh Comely 11) Ferris Wheel on Fire 12) Naomi 13) Song Against Sex 14) Ruby Bulbs 15) Snow Song, Pt. 1
Encore 1: 16) Ghost 17) Untitled 18) Two Headed Boy Pt. 2
Encore 2: 19) Engine
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