By Dan Singer
The house lights went dark in D.A.R. Constitution Hall on Friday night, and as Jeff Mangum walked onstage to loud, cavernous applause, I had a feeling that what I was about to see wasn’t supposed to happen. Sure, that’s the strategic emotional hook of almost every hyped-up reunion worth your $250 festival pass, but this was different.
Neutral Milk Hotel always existed in my musical vocabulary as a myth of sorts. As long as Mangum remained reclusive and idiosyncratic, it didn’t appear that his band was going to play another show. He dropped hints with his solo gigs and the release of a new box set, but the thought of an all out reunion still seemed too good to be true. Instead, Neutral Milk Hotel lived on through its brief but rich body of work, one that means a million different things to a million different people. I’d feel selfish asking for anything more.
So when the applause died down for a split second and Mangum began rapidly strumming the first chord of “Two Headed Boy,” I mentally left the concert hall and was transported somewhere far more surreal. Mangum grew out a thick beard and took the song down a whole step, but other than that it was like entering a time machine. His inflections hadn’t changed at all, and the notes still wavered as he sustained them. I grabbed the arm of my chair to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating.
There lacked the romantic silence that critics documented in reviews of Mangum’s solo shows, but it was pretty damn quiet as his voice and vigorous strums filled the room. Things got loud again near the end of the song when Mangum’s wordless vocals summoned his bandmates. Then the four of them transitioned seamlessly into “Fool.” It’s one thing to have Mangum onstage with a guitar, but to hear Neutral Milk Hotel’s orchestrations recreated note for note was stunning. “Fool” eerily waltzes like a dirge, yet this was more like a resurrection.
“Holland, 1945” came next. With the volume cranked up and the tempo just slightly pushing, the song acquired a looseness that made it tangible and alive. Mangum lit up as well, bouncing around with his enthused bandmates. In a sense, it was like Neutral Milk Hotel never broke up and was simply picking up where it left off 15 years ago. I’m sure the band is well aware that these tour dates are a stroll down memory lane, but they’re also intent on rocking the fuck out.
The middle stretch of the main set followed through with that mentality. “A Baby For Pree” was given the electric treatment, and “Everything Is,” from the EP of the same name, added a few Red Bulls to the blueprint of the studio version. At some point Jeremy Barnes started breaking drumsticks while upping his intensity. A friend who was also in attendance said she saw this happen six times during the set.
“Please sing with me,” Mangum said before parts one through three of “The King of Carrot Flowers.” As an archetypical neurotic Jewish male, I found it liberating to tell Jesus Christ that I love him (yes I do). I saw a few others singing in my section, but generally speaking, the people sitting around me were well-behaved and spent most of the night seated. I couldn’t have been the only one there who secretly wished we were in a sweaty club or church, really reveling in moments of pure silence and passionate catharsis. Ultimately, though, anything Neutral Milk Hotel gives us at this point feels like a gift, and maybe even the most reserved people around me were looking inward as they experienced songs tied so deeply to their memories.
D.A.R. Constitution Hall was a great space for Julian Koster’s musical saw, which floated in the back of the mix during the lovely title track from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Overall, Koster was delightful to watch. Dressed entirely in green and yellow and jumping between several instruments, he played a whimsical foil to Mangum throughout the set. Scott Spillane’s horn work also came through nicely. Whenever an “I love you” or “Long live Elephant 6” was yelled from the house between songs, he raised his arm triumphantly.
The main set finished up with a few other highlights, including a strong rendition of “Oh Comely” and the fuzzy On Avery Island cuts “Naomi” and “Song Against Sex.” When the band came back out for an encore, Mangum asked us to come closer. There’s really no way of knowing what this reunion will mean for Mangum and the band in the long run, and we may not get to see another Neutral Milk Hotel show after the year ends. So with their hero’s blessing, people hurried down from the tiers and poured through the aisles to get as close to the stage as possible.
We started dancing as “Ghost” led into Aeroplane’s untitled instrumental, and the show truly evolved into a celebration of life. This got me thinking about how Mangum’s relationship with Anne Frank parallels the ways in which people connect with his band’s legacy. Neutral Milk Hotel captures raw emotion like few other bands can, and its spirit and essence will survive even when it isn’t reincarnated onstage. Mangum probably said it best: “I know that she will live forever/All goes on and on and on.”
Mangum ended the show by playing “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” and then bringing out the band one last time for the lullaby “Engine.” The final notes that ascended skyward from Koster’s saw capped off a beautiful night that was equal parts energy and feeling. The band will be back in July to play at Merriweather Post Pavilion, and it’s a show that shouldn’t be missed, especially for those who couldn’t make it on Friday night. We’re lucky to have Mangum and co. to help us make sense of the world. Long live Elephant 6. Long live Neutral Milk Hotel.