Concert review: Neutral Milk Hotel's first show here in 16 years is a ragtag wonder


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These Jeff Mangum sightings are starting to become a regular thing.

After being MIA for more than a decade, indie-rock’s mystery man returned to Carnegie Music Hall Wednesday night, and those who saw him on that same stage last January couldn’t help but notice a certain similarity.

“You’re wearing the same sweater!” a woman shouted out, because something about shy indie-rock frontmen inspires people to shout things out in the dead space between songs.

It was in fact an unusual Scandinavian-looking sweater, which he wore with orangy red pants and an engineer’s cap and the long beard, giving him a perfect boho/hobo look.

When the frontman responded, “I have two [expletive] sweaters . What the hell do you want?” there was no reason not to believe him. (By the way, I couldn’t help but think about the Stones rolling out a full rack of colorful shirt changes once at the arena.)

While he may have looked the same, this show was quite different, obviously, as he came with friends. This is the first Neutral Milk Hotel tour since 1998 (when they played Graffiti) and the Carnegie sold out right away because that ‘98 album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” is practically the bible of beardo rock.

NMH played 10 of the 11 songs (no “Communist’s Daughter”), reproducing them in all their surrealist folk-to-punk majesty, with members coming and going (another strange attribute of ‘90s indie collectives) and no song having quite the same instrumentation. A friend who just saw them in Austin described the sound here as “a garbled mess,” but it seemed to me with people playing saws, French horns, accordions and bowing banjos, that was how it was supposed to be.

Mr. Mangum hit the stage solo for “Two-Headed Boy,” revealing his rich, dark acoustic guitar tone and re-establishing his braying vocal power and ability to jump octaves in a single bound. He was quickly joined by the band, including wacky sidekick Julian Koster playing anything that didn’t run away and gnome-ish looking Scott Spillane adding a top layer of horns and a bottom of fuzzed-out guitar. Driving the train with a fury was drummer Jeremy Barnes, and among the occasional players was Elf Power instrumentalist Laura Carter. In a display of where indie-rock went, post-Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, at times it was guitar, drums, two accordions and three horns.

“This place is magical,” Mr. Koster said, and it was, even with the house filled with security guarding the no-cellphone rule. In spite of being in his own zone, the frontman did seem distracted by it, even getting flustered and stopping “Ferris Wheel on Fire” part way.

Some fans get annoyed by the crowd-sings at these shows, but Mr. Mangum invited it, starting with “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One,” which got a whole room singing, “When you were young/You were the king of carrot flowers/And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees/In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet.” Worshipping “Aeroplane” means being able to recite every surreal word.

It was a beautiful garbled carnival mess, whether NMH was rampaging through “The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three” and “[untitled]” or putting the saw and theremin sounds to the album’s gorgeously melodic title track. The band also drew from the debut album, “On Avery Island,” and pair of EPs, for such crowd faves “Naomi” and the near metallic “Song Against Sex.”

Over the past few decades, the indie scene has spawned a wave of discordant, ragtag ensembles, many missing a legitimately out-there and formidable frontman. Wednesday night was a celebration of Neutral Milk Hotel having it all.

Elf Power, also of the Athens, Ga.-based Elephant 6 Collective, opened with a set of delightfully askew, warped-in-the-sun pop with touches of noise and ‘60s psych.


Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg

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