Neutral Milk Hotel / 2640 / Baltimore, MD / Friday, October 11, 2013
After 15 years, what's another five minutes of suspense as to what Jeff Mangum's new old band might sound like now? Though the opening set by Elf Power and the Elephant 6 t-shirts on sale at the merch table were probably hint enough, the un-retired icon first appeared alone — long-haired, long-bearded, natty-sweatered, and half-hidden under a Cuban Army hat — onstage at 2640, a Baltimore Methodist church turned collectivist arts center. The houselights — mostly paper lanterns and Christmas lights illuminating the crumbling paint and exposed brick — stayed on as the 42-year old songwriter launched into "Two-Headed Boy," the booming-voiced folk-surrealist manifesto from 1998's beloved In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And then, midway through, out ambled the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel.
As the tune wound to a close, Jeremy Barnes' kick drum materialized under Mangum's final, wordless evocation, launching the band into swaying horn instrumental "The Fool," and there was no doubt: Neutral Milk Hotel sound exactly as handmade, homespun, and completely wooly as they did when they abruptly vanished from the face of underground music a decade and a half ago. (They sound better, actually, now that their equipment isn't constantly on the verge of total breakdown.) Mangum half-conducted the ensemble with his guitar neck, but the six other musicians didn't need much prodding: a double accordion attack by the Music Tapes' Julian Koster and Mangum's wife, the radical filmmaker Astra Taylor; mustachioed drummer Barnes, back behind a trap kit after years leading his Eastern European folk ensemble a Hawk and a Hacksaw; and a horn trio featuring Scott Spillane, new multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Thal, and longtime auxiliary Hotelier Laura Carter of Elf Power.
Mangum's sextet — often splitting into various smaller groups, with most clustered around the core NMH trio — sounded full, rich, and practiced. But not too practiced. As soon as Koster strapped on his bass and stepped on the fuzz, enveloping "Holland, 1945" in trembling noise, the group immediately reverted to form, sounding equally capable of disintegrating at any moment or exploding into jeweled star-clusters of bowed banjos, singing saws, air organs, French horns, flowers, clouds, and sky. The all-hands-on-deck indie orchestra has become a standard-issue trick during the group's long hiatus, but nobody ever did it like Neutral Milk Hotel, then or now. Supporting Mangum's breathless torrents of bizarre imagery and preternaturally powerful voice, their arrangements were equally lyrical, a collage of Moogs and occasional dabs of Carter's Zanzithophone, the off-the-shelf Casio digital horn that in this context always comes on like other-dimensional bagpipes.
It was a little loud for sing-a-longs, which isn't to say that people didn't try, both off- and onstage. When he wasn't playing horns or an acoustic guitar, Spillane mouthed along to every word; even when the band left Mangum alone for most of "Oh, Comely," Spillane stood by the monitor mixer and continued, and when he returned for the song's ending, he kept on going, stopping to raise his horn to his lips, only to remember that it wasn't time to enter yet, which just allowed him to keep on singing.
Like the solo sets Mangum has been playing since his triumphant return to the stage in late 2010, there was nothing new in the set list here: some On Avery Island tracks, much of 1994's Everything Is EP, all of Aeroplane save "Communist Daughter." But unlike those victory-lap performances, the emphasis here was on movement, detail, and the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel is a band, and a totally unparalleled one that is now finally ready — hopefully — to begin the second phase of its career. "Song Against Sex" dissolved into a noise-drenched mini-suite of "Rubby Bulbs" and the French horn/saw/acoustic strum of "Snow Song, Part 1" before the band moved into the three-song segue that closes Aeroplane.
Even after 15 years of mythologizing buildup, Neutral Milk Hotel still point at something bigger and weirder and more beautiful than most people can ever imagine. Had photographers and other would-be documentarians not been gently but firmly told to knock it off (or else, bro), they might have captured a sloppy, ecstatic fuzz-folk band looking much like any other group appearing around the country this very weekend in basements or dive bars or VFW halls. But they also might have captured far more ghosts floating in the wings, and a bandleader and band fully at peace — and at play — with them.
"Two Headed Boy"
"A Baby For Pree"
"Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone"
"The King of Carrot Flowers (Part 1)"
"The King of Carrot Flowers (Parts 2 & 3)"
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
"Song Against Sex"
"Snow Song (Part 1)"
"Two Headed Boy (Part 2)"
"Ferris Wheel on Fire"