Ruston, Louisiana/Athens, Georgia-based lo-fi psychedelic folk quartet Neutral Milk Hotel, who have gained a massive cult following since the 1998 release of their acclaimed album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, performed to a sold-out crowd for the first of two shows at Kool Haus in Toronto last night.
Openers Elf Power, who are members of the Athens-based musical collective “Elephant 6 Recording Company” (to which Neutral Milk Hotel are also members), introduced songs from their new album, Sunlight on the Moon and reintroduced older favourites, while the capacity crowd anticipated the long-awaited performance by Jeff Mangum and co.
Elf Power displayed a variety of influences during their 14-song set, including the surf rock-sounding “Will My Feet Still Carry Me Home”, from 1999’s A Dream in Sound, which featured a hypnotic slide guitar by keyboardist Laura Carter, and perhaps another Beach Boys-inspired tune in “Jumping Fences”, a cover of the Olivia Tremor Control song, the punk-tinged “Everlasting Scream”, from 2002’s Creatures, which sounded like Black Flag circa 1981, to the carnival-sounding Moog on set closer “The Arrow Flies Close”, from 1997’s When the Red King Comes, which reflects on mortality in a similar vein as The Flaming Lips motify of “everyone you know someday will die” . As they burst into “The Well”, from 1999’s A Dream in Sound, guitarist Bryan Poole, who sported huge muttonchops-style sideburns, took over lead vocals and provided a grittier set of vocals than lead singer Andrew Rieger. If you want your indie rock with a touch of psychedelic, introspective lyrics and great harmonies, pick up their new album, Sunlight on the Moon.
As the lights dimmed and Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum, who appeared to be a stark contrast to the clean-shaven Mangum that appeared in the band’s 1998 promo photos, took to the stage and strummed the first few notes of set opener “King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1”, the crowd stood motionless, as they calculated the likelihood that this could all be in a dream. But as Mangum’s band mates – Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes and Julian Koster – appeared, the audience realized that this was reality.
The 15-year vanishing act that was Neutral Milk Hotel stunned fans, especially since they were at their creative peak in 1998-1999 following the release of Aeroplane. Mangum and co. have kept relatively quiet since then, occasionally working on each other’s projects and more recently Mangum playing a slew of solo acoustic dates, including one at Toronto’s Trinity Chruch in 2011.
Since their last Toronto show in the summer of 1998, which they played to roughly 400 people, which Scott Spillane thoughtfully apologized on this night on behalf of the band for being late to that show, they’ve released one “new” EP of eight songs that Mangum wrote between 1992 and 1995 called Ferris Wheel on Fire. Throughout their 19-song, 78-minute set, they touched on practically every album in their discography, including the lesser-known Everything Is EP from 1994 and the predecessor of Aeroplane, 1996’s On Avery Island.
From parts two and three of the King of Carrot Flowers trilogy, to fan favourite “Holland 1945” and more, a punk show-worthy mosh pit erupted and lasted for a good portion of the set, except during slow numbers like “Oh Comely” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, that lulled the crowd into a trance.
The show ended on a soothing note with “Engine”, from the aforementioned Ferris Wheel on Fire EP, which Julian Koster described as a lullaby, while he enthralled the crowd with banjo playing and flawless demonstration of a singing saw, though no one even blinked, their eyes locked on the stage in wonder at what this band of outsiders would do next.
Neutral Milk Hotel Set-list:
1. King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
2. King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3
3. Holland 1945
4. A Baby for Pree/Where You’ll Find Me Now
5. Avery Island/April 1st
6. Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
7. Everything Is
8. Two-Headed Boy
10. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
12. Ferris Wheel on Fire
13. Oh Comely
14. Song Against Sex
15. Ruby Bulbs
16. Snow Song Pt. 1
19. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2