As the lights finally dimmed, a large figure calmly walked out onstage to be greeted by what truly was a thunder of applause. There he was, Jeff Mangum in the flesh. The demi-Jesus of indie rock was grey and bearded, clad in his tattered Christmas sweater and Cuban army cap, standing alone onstage at Brooklyn Academy of Music while surrounded by a menagerie of instruments, tools and stuff you would only find in your grandmother’s basement. This was the second of five shows this week that Mangum would find himself onstage in New York, and would continue to do so as a part of the Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour. Although Mangum toured quite extensively in 2012 as a solo act, there seemed to be an aspect of authenticity missing from those live performances that could only be found at a Neutral Milk Hotel performance. For many of those fans that went to see him perform in 2012, deep down they yearned for his bandmates to be there.
Mangum, maintaining his humble disposition, ignored the gratitude, and somewhat even the presence, of his fans. Instead, he wordlessly dove into the set’s opener, Two Headed Boy Pt. 1. The instant the lyrics left Mangum’s mouth, his vocals were met by a chorus of exuberant fans, young and old, who just could not fight the urge to shout their lungs out at the lines, “Catching signals that sound in the dark,” complemented by the echoing, hollow sound of Mangum’s lonesome guitar strums. As the last of the “dee dee dees” were uttered, with Mangum transitioning to the instrumental Fool, the crowd’s jaws dropped upon sight of the other aged NMH members taking the stage: the Amish-esque bearded Scott Spillane; Jeremy Barnes (now with a porn ‘stache); and the ever-jocular Julian Koster, as well as a handful of other performers and members of opening act Elf Power. They all picked up their respective instruments out of the dozens onstage. And, together at last, the members of Neutral Milk Hotel smiled and nodded at one another before they played the grandiose, cacophonous song. The lethargic but bombastic tones of brass and percussion almost perfectly symbolize the band itself: odd and eccentric, but just so damn good.
Throughout the remainder of the performance, the band plowed through the entire setlist with barely a pause, managing to hit both On Avery Island and the legendarily iconic In The Aeroplane Over The Sea almost in their respective entireties, as well as Easter eggs such as songs off the lesser-known 2001 EP, Everything Is. Although at first all the equipment onstage seemed overbearing and almost prop-like, the array of tracks required each and every instrument to be touched at least once. One could see sweat pouring off Koster’s hair midway through the performance from shuffling so often between instruments mid-song.
To a casual listener of NMH, such intricacy of performance might seem a bit extreme. Without these minute details, however, the songs would have fallen extremely short of the audience’s expectations, and the girl next to me definitely would not have “had an orgasm” as she claimed when dancing her face off during Holland, 1945.
The band exited the stage after performing Snow Song, Pt. 1, returning for its must-desired encore (one fan audibly asking Mangum to be the father of her children). Beginning the encore set with the fast-paced Ghost and transitioning to the jam-esque [untitled], the audience responded enthusiastically with headbanging and floor-shaking dancing during the songs’ entirety. After Mangum serenaded the audience alone once again with the despondent Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2, Neutral Milk Hotel and company gathered onstage for the final song of the night. “We’re going to sing you a lullaby. It’s called ‘Engine,’” Mangum informed the audience as everyone settled into their instrumental positions. With Koster’s singing saw crying along and Mangum wailing his “children’s song” lyrics over the bare guitar strums, everyone felt themselves embraced in the band’s warmth, as if entrapped in a dream that you don’t ever want to wake up from. Many may claim this band sounds best on vinyl, but nothing will ever beat hearing it live.