When Jeff Mangum walked onstage alone at the 2640 Space in Baltimore last night, the audience didn’t seem to recognize him at first. It was, after all, the first Neutral Milk Hotel show in almost 15 years.
Mangum’s face was covered in a long beard and his hair hung down to his shoulders. Even his eyes were obscured by the shadows cast from the brim of his cap. “Hey, thanks for being here,” he said in a low-key fashion, barely acknowledging the fact that the full band hadn’t played live in a decade and a half. He then began a solo rendition of “Two-Headed Boy” and his identity became obvious. Although Mangum’s voice has dropped slightly since the release of the 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, it has also become much more rich and much more powerful.
Just as Mangum was finishing the song, the rest of the band walked on the stage in a unit that included French horns, trumpets, a tuba, an accordion and handsaws. At the end of “Two-Headed Boy,” the band went right into the instrumental “The Fool” which, despite its somber old-world sound, was brimming with energy and excitement.
Mangum spent the entire concert at stage left, rarely moving away from the microphone. Yet with each song, he seemed to build up more and more steam, progressing over the course of the set from swaying slightly to rapidly twisting back and forth until he was finally spinning in circles.
Throughout the show, multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster was as much a centerpiece as Mangum. While Mangum held onto his guitar for the entire set, Koster constantly shifted between instruments, even in the middle of songs, going from the accordion to a banjo to a handsaw played with a bow. That handsaw added the spooky whirl in the background of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and witnessing the carpentry tool live in action was quite a sight.
Despite the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel hasn’t toured in so long, the band was a tight unit, playing versions of the songs that were faithful to their studio counterparts while sometimes wandering into daring territory. “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” stormed forward with such energy that the entire room shook. “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” concluded with an audience sing-along. An early tune, “Ruby Bulbs,” was pushed into an extreme form, with the horn section blaring away like sirens so that Mangum’s lyrics were affixed to a single, massive wall of sound.
Throughout the night, Mangum said very little, though at times he did stop to thank the crowd. He even said, about the band with him, “I really do love all of these people.” Every so often, a gigantic grin would appear his face. After Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 hiatus, Mangum said he suffered a “spiritual breakdown” and wasn’t interested in making more Neutral Milk Hotel music. Judging by the smile on his face, it seems that he’s changed his mind. The only question: Is this a resurrection of the band or just a fond reminiscence?