Neutral Milk Hotel at First Avenue, 2/10/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo By Will Westbrook

Neutral Milk Hotel
With Elf Power
First Avenue, Minneapolis
February 10, 2014

Neutral Milk Hotel spent their entire career flying comfortably under the pop culture radar. But in the 15 years since they disbanded, their music has taken on a mythical quality. A devoted new batch of listeners has taken the cloistered story of lead singer Jeff Mangum to their collective heart. So, how exactly does Neutral Milk Hotel deal with the colossal expectations of fans who have been waiting their entire lives to see them play live?

On Monday night at a sold-out First Avenue, the band delivered a passionate 80-minute set that gave a rollicking modern edge to material that hasn't grown dusty at all over the years.

See Also: Jeff Mangum at State Theatre, 02/04/12

After a heavy dose of Boredoms as the pre-show music, Mangum casually strolled on stage to start the show. Most of these fans had never seen Mangum in person before -- unless they attended his glorious solo show at the State two years ago -- and up to this point, he'd only existed as a fragile voice on their stereos. But once he sang the opening strains of "Two-Headed Boy," the club was completely his.

Mangum was quite a bit more unkempt than he was at the State, with a long, messy beard, scraggly hair tucked under a baseball hat, and his traditional woolen winter sweater. As the stellar opening number wound down, the rest of the band (and guests including Elf Power's Laura Carter) quickly joined him. Julian Koster picked up an accordian, drummer Jeremy Barnes settled in behind his kit, and Scott Spillane picked one of his many horns set up in front of him. They eased into the swelling, funereal orchestration of "The Fool," with Jeff conducting the band with twists and turns of his guitar.

The set was a well-paced sweep of emotional bursts. The band wasted little time between songs, despite the continued changes in instruments and lineups. Koster was in great spirits throughout the set, bouncing along with Mangum to the rollicking beats of "Holland, 1945," which built in tempo as it stormed on, threatening to dissolve entirely as it came to a fitful end. Just as he did at the State, Jeff offered warm thank-yous between songs while holding his hand affectionately over his heart. (People were instructed before the show not to take pictures of any kind, and it was refreshing to see an entire crowd completely lost in the moment with no cell phones to be seen).

"A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You" continued the strong start, with Koster adding a ghostly bowed saw to the song's sentimental core, while the rich, brassy horns gave the tracks a regal flourish. "Gardenhead" found Mangum and Koster bouncing around the stage, clearly feeling the spirit of the song. And while many of these numbers had melancholy, mournful undertones (especially given the Anne Frank storyline that inspired the lyrics), the simple fact that Neutral Milk Hotel were playing these songs live, at long last, gave them an exultant quality.

"Leave Me Alone" and "Everything Is" were amped up, with heavy effects on Jeff's guitar and the band delivering rambunctious accompaniment. A moving, accordian-drenched take on "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One" found Mangum in full voice, with each slight emotional waver in his vocals adding to the raw sentiment. The song quickly transitioned into "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three," with Koster's bowed banjo giving the track a disconsolate spirit that gradually blossomed into a robust horn melody.

"All secrets sleep in winter clothes," Mangum sang affectionately in a truly moving version of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," one of many lines that resonated with an audience all too familiar with the crippling effects of the colder months and how that can cause us all to retreat within ourselves for warmth and comfort. As the deafening ovation died down a bit, Mangum again held his hand over his heart, saying, "Thank you, my good friends." Koster then took a moment to express his appreciation to everyone who braved the brutally cold weather to come out to the show: "Thank you to all of you who stood out in a cold line today just to be up front. We're all in awe of your devotion, honestly."

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