Friday, February 14, 2014

Neutral Milk Hotel thrilled its audience with its first KC show last night at the Uptown

Posted by on Fri, Feb 14, 2014 at 11:12 AM

Neutral Milk Hotel in slightly younger days

  • Neutral Milk Hotel in slightly younger days
When news broke two years ago that the elusive former frontman of Athens, Georgia's Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum, was not only out of hiding but also playing shows again, it was the sun parting through the clouds for which NMH's cult following had waited well over 10 years. Those handful of appearances were special, as they were Mangum's first live appearances since he left the public eye around 1998 for still-undisclosed reasons. We may never know because Mangum famously eschews all interview requests and does not even like to be photographed. His Lawrence appearance last winter was warm and lovely - and while Mangum seemed to enjoy some aspects of performing (though he did not seem entirely comfortable, either), it was unclear if we would ever see the man again.

Then, just a few months after the solo shows, another surprise: It was announced that the entire original lineup of Neutral Milk Hotel would reunite for a North American tour. One of those stops would be in Kansas City, a first for the band. Toy saxophones throughout the metro area twee'd in joy.

Neutral Milk Hotel is touring with fellow Elephant 6 Collective artists Elf Power, which opened last night's Uptown Theater show. During NMH's short touring run in the late '90s, Elf Power was one of the few bands that actually did tour with the band before Mangum's well-publicized disappearance. Elephant 6 artists officially disbanded in 2002, but the staying power of these bands in the collective music consciousness has been impressive (E6 artists include NMH and Elf Power, as well as Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control and the Music Tapes).

Elf Power, like NMH, had never played in Kansas City before, and last night's crowd provided a warm reception for the band's mood, toy instruments, jangly guitars and male/female vocal interplay. The band has been together in various forms since 1994, and while some of its music is highly reminiscent of the college/indie-rock scene of the early aughts, the music has aged well: it's playful, smart and fun, and was executed well. They closed with "The Arrow Flies Close," fitting as Jeff Mangum appears on the song's original 1997 recording.

After a 40-minute break between sets, Mangum appeared onstage to a rapturous response from the crowd, which was of mixed ages, a testament to the band's continued ability to draw in new fans basically based solely on two 15-year-old (and plus) albums and a bit of music folklore.

Mangum opened the set alone with "Two-Headed Boy," a favorite from the band's best-known release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. As a performer, Mangum is magnetic - particularly when he is solo. This is despite being somewhat hidden in a bushy beard, a hat pulled low over his eyes, and a long-sleeved shirt.

Toward the end of the song, as on Aeroplane, a band slowly emerged onto the stage, featuring original members Scott Spillane (sporting a pretty magnificent white chinstrap beard), Julian Koster and Jeremy Barnes, as well as a few additional supporting members, including Laura Carter of Elf Power. The two accordions, two horns and rhythm section ending accompaniment to the song were surprisingly affecting, and the crowd practically swooned to hear such familiar instrumentation.

The majority of the set featured material from Aeroplane, with a smattering of material from On Avery Island and even a 2011 EP, Ferris Wheel on Fire (the title track from which proved to be one of the stronger songs of the entire set).

During performances of title tracks "Ferris Wheel" and "Aeroplane," it became abundantly clear that multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, who plays the saw, accordion, bass and synthesizer, among other instruments, is far more deeply integral to NMH's sound than I ever was aware of before. While Mangum writes the majority of the music, it is Koster particularly who adds the wonderful, odd flourishes that make NMH different and somewhat timeless. The warbly saws, strange distortion and effects all come from the brilliantly energetic, almost John Frusciante-like (in energy and appearance, at least) Koster. This is not to take anything away from the horns, which were full, crisp and also completely necessary to NMH's sound, but Koster, bounding all over the stage in a sort of silly blue hat, was a bit of a revelation.

Occasionally, the band sounded muffled or muted, even a little bit off-time. Whether this is from a lack of rehearsal or the looseness of the way the band plays generally is sort of unknown, based on how little they have performed together over the years. My general sense is that with this band, that is not the point.

The band and Mangum succeeded highly at creating a semi-nostalgic, semi-dreamlike atmosphere that was joyful for the audience, for the members of Elf Power watching from the high balcony near the stage and, at times for everyone, perhaps even triumphant. The performance of "Ghost," the first song of the encore, with its long, instrumental joy freakout at the end, was pure pleasure.

I guess we can no longer say with certainty that it's unlikely we'll never see Neutral Milk Hotel again. We'll cautiously hold out hope that we do. 

NMH set list (to the best of my ability, feel free to leave corrections in the comments):

Two-Headed Boy
The Fool (?)
Holland, 1945
A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Everything Is
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Oh Comely
Song Against Sex
Ruby Bulbs
Snow Song Pt. 1


Two Headed Boy Pt. 2

Note: No photos were allowed at this show. 

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