Following the 1998 release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore album, frontman Jeff Mangum played an opening set for fellow Elephant 6 Recording Company members, Elf Power, in an Athens, Georgia basement; the performance became Mangum’s last before his band’s fifteen-year hiatus. On Monday night, the same Neutral Milk Hotel lineup that recorded In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, a release that has since become considered one of recent history’s most influential albums, took the stage after an opening appearance from longtime friends, Elf Power.
While Elf Power continued to make new music and consistently tour behind their various releases during NMH’s fifteen-year period of absence, the members of NMH went their separate ways. Collaborating with other members of Elephant 6, multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster formed The Music Tapes, while horn specialist Scott Spillane fronted The Gerbils. Drummer Jeremy Barnes also joined The Gerbils, which became one of his several side projects, including the Eastern European instrumental group, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, and the experimental jazz band, Bablicon. Mangum, whose apprehension with the attention gained from In an Aeroplane’s success spurred the initial disbandment of NMH, appeared sporadically throughout the hiatus, performing infrequently at charity concerts and eventually touring the west coast prior to a slot on Coachella’s 2012 lineup.
Just as “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” opens In an Aeroplane with Mangum’s imagery-driven lyricism atop acoustic guitar chords, Monday’s show began with the frontman alone on stage, playing the opening track with eyes shadowed by a baseball cap and the lower portion of his face engulfed by the bulk of his microphone. As the song progressed and the remaining NMH members joined Mangum for the introduction of full instrumentation in the subsequent “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” Mangum stepped away from the microphone, visibly becoming more comfortable as the spotlight broadened to recognize the entirety of the band.
The onstage addition of Koster, Spillane, and Barnes brought about a newfound energy to the State Theater; as the distorted, quick-paced opening chords of “Holland, 1945” rang throughout the venue, Koster’s spastic grooving and Spillane’s sing-along enthusiasm inspired the realization that Neutral Milk Hotel has, in fact, returned.
While pursuing various projects in Neutral Milk Hotel’s decade and a half of disbandment, its members sharpened their skillsets and integrated these improvements into the band’s reunion. Koster’s work on the singing saw and the bowed banjo showed incredible musicianship, and the collective sound created by the band, along with appearances from Elf Power’s Laura Carter and Mangum’s wife Astra Taylor, swept over the audience throughout the entire set.
As the future of Neutral Milk Hotel never seems quite certain, Upstate fans can only hope it won’t take another fifteen years to see them perform again.
Setlist: The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1, The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3, Holland, 1945, A Baby for Pree, Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone, Everything Is, Two-Headed Boy, The Fool, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Naomi, Ferris Wheel on Fire, Oh Comely, Song Against Sex, Ruby Bulbs, Snow Song, Part One
Encore: Ghost, [untitled], Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2, Engine