Live Review: Neutral Milk Hotel at 2640 Space
It started much as it had ended in 2011: Jeff Mangum on the stage of the 2640 Space, an acoustic guitar, and a mic. His hair was a little longer this time, and he sported a long, scruffy beard that suggested he might not have shaven in that two year span. He strummed the opening bars of “Two-Headed Boy,” one of the songs off his 1998 indie-folk masterwork with Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the audience once again fell into a rapt silence, in awe of the performance before them and mesmerized it was even happening at all.
As the song drew to a close, musicians — including the three other core members of Neutral Milk Hotel: Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes, and Scott Spillane – came on stage from the wings of the church to perform “The Fool,” the old world, horn- and accordion-laden interlude that follows “Two-Headed Boy” on Aeroplane. It was the first time Neutral Milk Hotel was playing as a band since 1998.
The crowd let out a long, loud cheer when the band finished, louder and longer than most set-openers get or deserve. But it seemed earned. It was an exhale, a recognition that the long wait was finally over.
Neutral Milk Hotel is often seen as a beacon of Mangum’s genius as a songwriter, but much of the night proved how the songs are best served as a band. They were quite tight as a unit, rarely if ever showing rust from the long layoff. More importantly, the instrumentation added the energy and atmosphere that simply can’t be reproduced by a solo performer. Koster’s fuzzed out bass and Barnes’s thundering drums gave “Holland, 1945″ the muscle and folk-punk underpinning that sent the audience into a head-nodding, moshing frenzy (yes, really. Moshing), much as it did on the uproarious second half of “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two and Three.” And they were able to provide calmer, subtler touches, such as the hand saws on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and “Engine” that filled the old church with a beautifully eerie ambiance.
Just as in 2011, Mangum was in great voice, his tone a bit deeper now but also richer, and he seemed to gain a little bit of momentum as the band settled in, most notably on a version of “Oh Comely” sang with utter conviction in which Mangum pushed his voice to the point of nearly cracking.
There was plenty of exuberance throughout the night, but it seemed for the most part the room was dumbstruck once the applause died down, in complete awe after the performance of each majestic song about life, death, and transcendence. Without stepping too far into the realm of hyperbole, there were plenty of moments of beauty and power that spoke for themselves. A quiet would fall over the space as the band changed or tuned their instruments, prompting Koster to at one point playfully tell the crowd, “You guys can talk if you want” and Spillane to teasingly hold his index finger to mock that we seemed afraid to make a peep.
Mangum’s withdrawl from music and enigmatic demeanor and the band’s long hiatus created an air about the performance that it was something precious or sacred — if someone yelled something dumb or talked or so much as breathed the wrong way, the magic of the moment would be ruined. There was a similar mood hanging over the 2011 solo show, and despite Mangum’s affability then, it managed to resurface. That sounds pretentious, but it speaks for the the fans admiration for and relationship with the songs. Friends would wrap their arms around each other and shake their shoulders in disbelief. Couples held each other. People sang along as if it meant everything.
In between songs early in the set, Mangum, speaking of the band, said in a rather nonchalant way, “I really do love all of these people, just so you know.” It almost sounded like a throwaway line, but it also seemed like an affirmation that he was over whatever it was that it had troubled him for so long.
During the three-song encore, Mangum mentioned rather casually that he had cut his finger, but it didn’t seem to bother him much. He played on, and as he performed “Ferris Wheel On Fire” and “Engine,” the first couple frets of his guitar became covered in crimson. It was hard to tell if he even noticed. He was entirely locked in with the performance.