Opening act and fellow Elephant 6 Collective artist Elf Power served as an underwhelming prelude to Neutral Milk Hotel's grand return. Elf Power features recurring Elephant Six characters including current NMH touring member Laura Carter and of Montreal's Bryan Poole (aka the Late B.P. Helium). A poignant cover of the Olivia Tremor Control track "Jumping Fences" dedicated to late OTC frontman Bill Doss served as the most memorable moment of the opening set. The group was met with its highest amount of crowd approval as Neutral Milk Hotel's Scott Spillane walked onstage to assist with the final song of the set, displaying the tense anticipation of the main attraction felt by many in attendance. Despite the shadow cast by the ensuing promise of a Neutral Milk Hotel performance and the poor sound that plagued its set, Elf Power delivered a solid if somewhat forgettable supporting effort.
Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum was met with fervent applause as he took to the stage to perform "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1," the opening track from Neutral Milk Hotel's fan favorite and inarguably classic 1998 album "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." Mangum was joined onstage by original NMH members Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster and Scott Spillane to finish out the track and its coda, "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2." The band kicked off "Holland 1945" with a somewhat loose start, but quickly recovered, gaining momentum as the set continued. NMH performed every track off of "Aeroplane" short of "Communist Daughter," with "Two-Headed Boy" and the title track being met with the most adulation. Mangum's pained and emotionally resonant performance of "Two-Headed Boy" was a reminder to all in attendance of exactly what fans had been missing during Neutral Milk Hotel's lengthy hiatus.
While Mangum's cult status is set in stone, Wednesday's set also served as a showcase of the criminally underrated instrumental work of Neutral Milk Hotel's lesser-known members. Koster alternated between electric bass, accordion, singing saw and synthesizer throughout the night while Scott Spillane rounded out the band's sound with an array of brass instruments and guitar. Even drummer Jeremy Barnes switched over to accordion duty to close out the night.
This already diverse set of aural textures was met with the addition of three touring musicians who fully replicated the intricacies of Neutral Milk Hotel's recordings. Trombone, additional guitar, French horn and an eclectic array of woodwinds faithfully reproduced the most studio-driven moments of NMH's recordings. This attention to detail was most evident during "the Fool," the funeral march centerpiece of "Aeroplane," which was performed with every nuance of the studio recording intact. The addition of these musicians brought a polish to Neutral Milk Hotel's live sound unseen during its original run, but did not detract from the thrift store marching band appeal of the original recordings.
Some of the night's strongest moments were found during the band's non-"Aeroplane" tracks. The inclusion of the hypnotic non-album track "Ferris Wheel On Fire" in NMH's set was a refreshing surprise alongside what has become the band's popular songbook. The group's performances of "Everything Is" and "Naomi" acted as further reminders that despite its eclectic musical trappings, Neutral Milk Hotel has always been a rock band at heart. Before its encore, Neutral Milk closed with a performance of the unreleased track "Rubby Bulbs," a showcase of Mangum's cryptic imagery. This song segued into a gorgeous rendition of "Snow Song Pt. 1" that without a doubt transcended its original 1994 recording.
The band's encore started with a rousing rendition of "Ghost" followed by "Untitled" and "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2," thus completing ITAOTS's track sequencing. "Untitled" was the band's tightest group performance by far, with fans in the pit head-bobbing in unison as crashing drums were met with jubilant bagpipe strains. Mangum's solo performance of "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2" was followed by the self-described lullaby "Engine," which proved to be a fitting conclusion to the evening. The song's restrained quality displayed the full spectrum of Neutral Milk Hotel's sound, as accordion, singing saw, lush horns and Mangum's longing vocals rewarded fans with the perfect final soundtrack to the night's reverent atmosphere.
The newfound command Neutral Milk Hotel displayed over its back catalog wholeheartedly justified its reunion tour. The dynamic onstage was far from a band slogging through its old hits, but rather that of a much younger band clearly enjoying itself. Neutral Milk Hotel's set confirmed the timeless quality of its material, with Jeff Mangum's graying beard acting as the only reminder that more than fifteen years have passed since its last album. Neutral Milk Hotel left the Pageant's audience praying that its first hiatus will prove to be its last.
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 and 3
A Baby For Pree
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel write my essay on Fire
Song Against Sex
Snow Song Pt. 1
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2