After a hiatus of 15 years, Neutral Milk Hotel have returned to the stage with a world tour. But, despite being an obviously important landmark for both the band and their fans, was it worth the wait? In a nutshell, yes. Isaac Powell gives his thoughts on Friday’s London show.
‘Please refrain from taking any photos during the performance tonight, the main act is very shy’. At the time and in retrospect, I doubt many who handed over their stubs for inspection believed that the young ticket girl had even heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, but such elitism was naturally outranked by the fizzing weight of anticipation surrounding the band’s first tour in 15 years and the fact she was right. With the sun setting slowly over a bustling Camden Town, thousands of long-suffering fans nodded in passive agreement and poured inside The Roundhouse to finally get a chance to live their dream.
And, as Jeff Mangum gingerly emerged alone onto the stage to perform a heartbreaking rendition of Oh Comely, he looked every bit the urban myth that these people had molded him into. His long, disheveled beard and well-worn trucker hat were more than mere symbolism of his well-documented isolation; they were living, breathing artefacts that gracefully accompanied him back into the spotlight. It was as if he needed those small, tangible items of comfort.
In truth, the ragged, homespun imperfections of Mangum’s stirring voice were remarkably overwhelming in their poignancy. He had never sounded this good, and the smorgasbord of instrumental artillery supplied by old band mates Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes, Scott Spillane – supplemented by his enigmatic wife and the super-talented Laura Carter and Jeremy Thai – were as delicate as it were bombastic. Perhaps the most striking thing was that they were having fun, not as individuals, but together as a band. Bound by their past and perhaps invigorated by the possibility of a future, here was a band sharing the stage in orchestral harmony.
But, whilst there was no new material to be heard (as expected), Aeroplane favourites King of Carrot Flowers, Ghost, Two-Headed Boy, Fool and more were effortlessly juxtaposed with their lesser known Ferris Wheel on Fire & Avery Island material, fleshed out in familiar holistic technicolour though a gaggle of bellowing trumpets, trap-kit snare fills, triumphant accordions, singing saws and dozens more flashes of wondrous sound. The glorious medley of Ruby Bulbs and Snow Song Pt I was also a striking reminder that Neutral Milk Hotel were not just masters of spinning haunting melody around unsettling human imagery, but that they were brilliant technical musicians.
It’s ultimately difficult not to gush over an event like this because rarity tends to breed rose-tinted memories and a strong sense of denial, but this truly was significant. Mangum and friends showed that legacy can live up to its name, and that a musical performance can unite as much as anything. He explained that he felt taking photography in such an intimate live setting undermines that unity, but not to sweat it too much. And, as he swept his flowing hair back and beat his heart to reciprocate the appreciation after the finale of Two Headed Boy Pt II and Engine, I think the majority of the crowd found similar closure – they’d waited just as long as he had to feel these songs again.
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