I didn’t take this picture, and I don’t know who did, because Neutral Milk Hotel don’t allow photography at their concerts. But I can say that this is exactly what frontman Jeff Mangum looked like when he appeared on stage on July 21st at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.
During the thundering screams, shouts, and applause that emanated from the audience when Jeff walked onstage, I really took in the appearance of this legendary songster. He gave off the vibe of a mountain man who had just returned from living in a cave for a couple of years. Which is kind of what he did, in a way, by returning to the live circuit after over a decade of laying low. I think Jeff goes for the hermit look because he’s so used to being away from the spotlight, and now that he is directly back in the spotlight, he still needs to shroud himself in a bushy beard, a cap, and an overgrown haircut to retain that aura of seclusion and mystery. Regardless, Neutral Milk Hotel fans should rejoice that the man is back.
Fellow Elephant 6 band Circulatory System performed a half-hour opening set before Neutral Milk Hotel took the stage. To be honest, they inspired a resounding “meh” from the only half-full amphitheater. Circulatory System’s music is very dense, and the melodies are not immediately catchy. The psychedelic, melancholy feel of their songs works pretty well in headphones, but it doesn’t translate so well to live shows. It was very loud and very busy, without much melodic pull. But hey, at least they’re making the music they want to make.
Will Cullen Hart, Circulatory System’s frontman, sang his heart out as the other band members played drums, guitar, clarinet, cello, and glockenspiel, among other instruments. They opened with “Prehistoric” and closed with “Yesterday’s World”, which are two of their best songs and the ones that sound the best live. The middle of their set was full of messy psychedelic mush, and even “The Lovely Universe” didn’t come across that well. But Will Hart is a great singer, and it was cool to see these songs performed live that I’ve been listening to in my headphones for the past month.
Then, after a short break, Neutral Milk Hotel performed. And it was just as glorious as I’d hoped. But strangely, the band opened with a solo Jeff Mangum acoustic version of an obscure rarity called “I Will Bury You in Time”. The obvious choice for an opener would be “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1”, right? That would have been much more effective, I think. That song was actually third in the setlist, with “Holland, 1945” taking the second spot. “Holland, 1945” got the mosh pit in front going pretty hard, and us lowly serfs in the orchestra section had to be content with rocking out in our seats (standing up, of course).
The band played all of their classics, which are most of the songs from their two albums. The only fatal omission was the non-album track “Engine”, a song I was really looking forward to hearing live, with Julian Koster on the singing saw. When the band left the stage for the first time, an encore was inevitable, because they had left out obvious live choices such as “Ghost” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”. The latter song was the last one of the night, a perfect concert ender to send us fans back to our boring daily lives, out of the aeroplane over the sea.
These Neutral Milk Hotel classics leapt to life on stage. The jumble of instruments that the band used on record were pulled out one by one, some that I hadn’t even identified until the night of the concert: trumpets, trombones, a baritone, a flugelhorn, a singing saw, an accordion, and even a synthesizer played by breathing into it to produce the bagpipe sound for the untitled instrumental on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. When that fuzzy wall of sound washed over the audience at the climax of almost every full-band song, it took me right back to the first time I’d heard them. “Naomi” was especially memorable, being a song whose studio version I had always liked, but that really blew my mind live. The pounding drums and throbbing guitar that came in at the song’s transition from quiet to loud really brought the track to a new level. A few songs featured Mangum alone on guitar as the other musicians left the stage, including the opening tune, both versions of “Two-Headed Boy”, and “Oh Comely”.
Jeff Mangum’s guitar playing throughout the night was swift, economical, and just as rhythmically important to the set as the drums were. His voice is even more piercing live than it is on record, delivering the lyrics that he wrote all those years ago with a cutting intensity. But Neutral Milk Hotel is more than just Mangum. The other band members were equally fascinating, especially Julian Koster. He had the time of his life up there on the stage, jumping around while he played guitar. He dramatically lifted up his singing saw before he performed with it, leading to shouts of approval from the audience. Even without microphones, the supporting Neutral Milk Hotel members were singing along to the songs, showing that this is a band that truly loves their work and understands why so many offbeat people would rather die than lose their copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I would see Neutral Milk Hotel again in a heartbeat, no doubt about it. This is one item checked off of the bucket list for me.
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