In 1998 Neutral Milk Hotel released an iconic album, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" that many Generation Xers latched onto instantly. A year after the cult hit dropped (it was not an immediate commercial success), lead singer Jeff Mangum vanished from the stage citing disillusionment with fame and the music press. The band even turned down an opportunity to tour with R.E.M. 16 years later, Mangum has resurfaced from his epic hiatus and last April Neutral Milk Hotel announced a reunion tour. Yesterday's first of two sold-out shows at ACL Live did not disappoint as a grizzled Mangum appeared on stage with streaks of grey in his thick beard and long, matted hair. He was wearing a hunter green painter's cap pulled low over his brow and a Martin acoustic slung over his shoulder. The sold-out Moody Theater crowd howled their approval as the band leader launched into "Two Headed Boy Part 1" while standing alone on stage. The rest of the band joined him midway through the song. Once the music started it was as though no time at all had passed since NMH last played.
It is hard to put your finger on specifically why Neutral Milk Hotel has such a devoted following. On the surface the band's beginnings look rather onerous. The music for their benchmark album was inspired by Mangum's reading of "Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl." If that is not weird enough, the songs were written in a house Mangum claimed had a haunted closet. Even the instrumentation is unorthodox. Bassist Julian Koster played a variety of instruments last night including a saw, banjo (with violin bow), accordion, keyboards, guitar and even a brass bell. Yet somehow it all works to produce a strange, psychedelic, folky, spiritual sound marked by the wailing of Mangum and a mournful horn section.
Neutral Milk Hotel formed out of the Elephant 6 Recording Company based in Athens. A later project of the collective, Elf Power opened the show and some of the members joined NMH on stage for several songs including the opener. A various points during the 90-minute performance there would be as many as 8 musicians on the stage. The constant was the reedy Mangum and his acoustic. Mangum oscilated between standing stock-still at the mic and pogoing up and down with Koster. There was a black curtain behind the band and minimal lighting over the stage. This concert was all about the music.
In fact, early in the set Mangum politely asked the crowd "to keep your cell phones in your pocket and be here with us." The audience dutifully obeyed their spiritual leader. That is exactly what Mangum appears to be, a wonderfully lost, drifting leader of the church of weird, wondrous songs. Especially endearing was the band's rendition of "King of Carrot Flowers Part 1" followed by Part 2 and 3. Then Mangum topped that with the group's most famous song, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The audience could be heard singing along with the catchy phrasing.
Mangum singing "Oh Comely" got a huge reaction. This may have been the high point of the performance. The crashing cymbals and fuzzy guitars along with Mangum's howling drew the crowd further down the rabbit hole. The set ended with "Snow Song Part 1." Not a single fan left the theater, hollering for Neutral Milk Hotel to encore which they did with four songs including "Two Headed Boy Part 2." Elf Power came back out to assist on finale, "Engine."
Mangum and the band graciously thanked the crowd before leaving the stage. Our only question is how will Neutral Milk Hotel top yesterday's performance?
Neutral Milk Hotel at ACL Live night one setlist:
Two Headed Boy Part 1
A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Song Against Sex
Snow Song Pt.1
Two Headed Boy Part 2
Special thanks to Keitha Spears.
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