The mythic time at Coachella is sunset: the festival has even compiled stats on bands who have been playing the main stage when the sun dips behind the mountains (16 from the U.S., eight from England, one from France). This weekend's sunset moment belonged to Neutral Milk Hotel, who at 6:57p.m. yesterday were playing the title track to their beloved 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: a song about falling in love but knowing that someday it will end, like all things, in death.
The crowd was rapt, almost silent, knowing they were witnessing something rare. Jeff Mangum, leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, vanished for well over a decade before reuniting the band last year, and he came onstage looking like Howard Hughes in recluse mode, with a long beard and a baseball cap pulled down low. He greeted the crowd by saying, "Would you mind putting the cameras and cell phones away? Let's just be together, OK?" People complied, for the most part.
Neutral Milk Hotel lovingly recreated their old songs, drawing on both Aeroplane and the earlier On Avery Island, bolstering Mangum's guitar with a motley assortment of instruments: accordion, trombone, saw, even a banjo played with a bow. The group (as many as seven strong at some points) matched the dense tangle of Mangum's lyrics with music that veered between drones and melodies, and felt like ecstatic prayers, as if the fastest path to divinity was making a joyful noise.
A few hours later, Coachella would end the weekend with a triumphant set by the Arcade Fire: another artistic collective fond of instrument-swapping, Salvation Army aesthetics and ambitious theme records. But although the Arcade Fire had Debbie Harry onstage to sing "Heart of Glass," their predecessors owned the day. Neutral Milk Hotel's set climaxed with Mangum doing "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" solo, singing about "secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight." In a corner of the Coachella grounds, Mangum unwrapped some of those secret songs and gave the 2014 festival some evanescent but indelible memories.