Anticipated chatter circulated in the foyer of the Riverside Theater, and with good reason. The evening’s headliner were roughly an hour away from stepping on stage, but there was more to it than that. “Never,” I heard a young show-goer say to his friend, “I never thought that I’d actually see Neutral Milk Hotel live.”
In the late ’90s, Ruston, La.’s Neutral Milk Hotel released two albums of fuzzy, psychedelic folk on independent label Merge Records, the second of which — In The Aeroplane Over The Sea — received a considerable amount of attention upon its 1998 release. Critics and listeners alike praised the album for its lush and unique arrangements, distinctive lyricism and masterful song craft. The pressures of touring and promotion led to the band’s breakup the following year, with front man Jeff Mangum becoming the subject of many Brian Wilson-esque myths. Over the next decade, the rise of music blogs and online music resources like Pitchfork Media boosted the album’s profile, helping it eventually sell more than 300,000 copies worldwide. Since its release, Aeroplane has risen to the ranks of modern indie classics like The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain — albums that have served for many as gateways to the underground.
After a decade of near silence, Mangum began making scattered live appearances in 2008. He embarked on a solo tour in 2012, including a stop at the Pabst Theater. While the set was primarily a low-key affair, the audience was given glimpses of what it would be like to see Neutral Milk Hotel perform live. Three years later, the wishes of many were fulfilled as the band made their Milwaukee debut at the Riverside Theater.
Circulatory System kicked off the evening on a high note. Recorded, the band sounds like attempting to play a half melted copy of Magical Mystery Tour — sugary sweet and hook-laden, but warped and charmingly lo-fi. Their live show, however, was a slightly different outing. Much like lo-fi practitioners Guided By Voices, Circulatory System’s songwriting and musicianship are presented more clearly in a live setting. While a notable portion of the audience felt it necessary to chat throughout the set (come on Milwaukee, we’re better than that) the band played marvelously. The set was a both a wonderful change of pace and an appropriate warm up to the evening’s main attraction.
Neutral Milk Hotel began its show with a lone Mangum performing “I Will Bury You in Time,” a recently released and lesser-known tune written between their first and second album. After a few verses, the remaining band members ran onstage and seamlessly launched into “Holland, 1945,” one of Aeroplane’s many highlights. “The only girl I’ve ever loved / was born with roses in her eyes,” sang Mangum, with the audience blissfully singing along.
Wasting no time, the band set off into the opening tracks of Aeroplane, “The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts 1, 2 and 3.” While each band member had their instrument of primary focus, all of them switched to a different one at some point during the set, in some cases within the course of the same song. Accordion, guitar, banjo, even the relatively obscure zanzithophone filled out the arrangements exactly as they appeared on recording, a decision which did not go unnoticed by the audience; the appearance of a new instrument being played was greeted with uproarious applause nearly every time.
There was a certain energy present in their live show that one might not expect. Julian Kaster spun around like a dog chasing its tail while playing bass, Scott Spillane acted as choir director to the packed audience as they sang along, and Jeremy Barnes thrashed around behind the drum kit, doing his best Keith Moon impersonation. Songs were pushed beyond their usual tempos, strings were broken, cymbals stands knocked over; these aren’t exactly things that one might expect of the band when listening to their recorded output. It seemed as though they have finally grown comfortable with their success and are now able to enjoy themselves onstage.
With a relatively small catalog to draw from, the band succeeded in covering a wide variety of material in their 17-song set. While they focused on Aeroplane, performing all but one of its 11 tracks, they included selections from their previous album, On Avery Island, as well as two non album tracks. “Everything Is,” the first track from their debut EP was performed with vitality, while “Engine,” a B-side from the Aeroplane sessions was as gorgeous as ever, due in no small part to the work of Kaster. For “Engine,” he put down his bass guitar and played a hand saw with a bow (also called a “singing saw”), bending it while doing so to create gorgeous, fluttering tones.
Reuniting for a short encore, the band concluded the set with “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2,” the final track on Aeroplane, as well as the song Mangum opened his Pabst set with in 2012. While it was a more appropriate closer than opener, it was a nice way to bookend the band’s recent reformation. They have said that this current tour is their last “for the foreseeable future,” and while plenty of acts have made similar claims, this may very well be the case for Neutral Milk Hotel. The Riverside Theater was treated to a fantastic performance, and if it ends up being their last time in Milwaukee, so be it. Plenty of us thought we’d never have an opportunity to see them at all.