Live review: Neutral Milk Hotel at BAM
The cult favorite has regrouped for a worldwide tour; read our take on Jeff Mangum & Co.'s first NYC date at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Fri Jan 24 2014
Photograph: Cory Greenwell
What's in a name? I saw Jeff Mangum perform in 2012, after emerging from a reclusive period into a sea of salivating fans. For many, it was better than seeing Thomas Pynchon give a reading.
Now, Mangum has gotten the proverbial band back together and they're touring under the moniker that made him a cult hero: Neutral Milk Hotel. The group—which includes the Santa-like horn maestro Scott Spillane, as well as multi-instrumentalists Julian Koster (also of the Music Tapes) and Jeremy Barnes—is in the midst of a world tour, with stops at massive festivals like Coachella. Obviously a reunion of this magnitude—which now seems to be never-ending—includes a healthy paycheck. So, is the whole thing a rip-off?
Last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—the first of five NYC dates the band will play in the next week—Mangum tellingly walked onto the stage solo before kicking things off with "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One," the first cut from NMH's seminal 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The rest of the band joined shortly thereafter, and throughout the evening, there would be as many as seven people onstage. (The rotating cast of acts known as the Elephant 6 Collective, of which Neutral Milk Hotel is a member, is famously collaborative; Elf Power, another of its bands, opened the show.)
A rock show at BAM can be a bit awkward, with chairs inviting audience members to sit. From behind a massive beard, Mangum encouraged the crowd to stand as the group continued to cycle through the NMH catalog. He stumbled a bit on "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. Two," for which he later apologized. (He has a gracious and humble stage presence.) The troupe knocked off a punkish version of "Gardenhead," and later, the frontman stepped into the spotlight for an earnest version of "Two-Headed Boy." As in 2012, a large group of horns and noise emerged for "The Fool," making the previous song feel all the more intimate.
Mangum's singular power can make you question the point of a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion at all. What's the difference between this show and a Jeff Mangum one? To say he is the core of the band is an understatement; anyone who has obsessed over his unique vocals and ramshackle plotting on the concert album Live at Jittery Joe's knows he's a one-man wrecking crew.
Then again, Julian Koster was there last night. He's a musical freak, playing the banjo, Moog, accordion, musical saw and probably 12 other instruments I didn't even notice. As for those saws: Three of the jagged tools were propped up on a monitor, almost threatening the crowd. Every so often, Koster would pick one up and make it sing like a siren. It was beautiful, weird and a Neutral Milk Hotel calling card come to life.
Koster was also the one to announce that NMH's four main members first assembled in New York. This show, he remarked, was "special for us." The same could be said for much of the hard-core audience, regularly mouthing Mangum's psychedelic poetry or even singing it out loud. Neutral Milk Hotel tipped its hat to the superfans with deep cuts like "Everything Is," "Ferris Wheel on Fire," "Rubby Bulbs" and "Snow Song, Pt. One." "Ferris Wheel on Fire" was particularly enthralling, a tumultuous showcase of Mangum's cracking croon.
Inevitably, you might wonder how much juice is left in the old material and whether the band will ever write an album's worth of new tracks. But, for last night, hearing a nice set that included arguably two of NMH's best songs—"Oh Comely" and "Engine"—was sufficient. Mangum, alone, tapped his knuckles on is guitar for the beat to "Engine," the last song of the night. Again, the rest of the crew emerged, Koster taking up a saw. Then, Mangum said, "I'll see you again." And whether it's as Jeff Mangum or as the leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, it won't matter: just as long as he's there.
"The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One"
"The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three"
"A Baby for Pree"
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
"Ferris Wheel on Fire"
"Song Against Sex"
"Snow Song, Pt. One"
"Untitled / The Penny Arcade in California"
"Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two"
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)