This is covert stuff. I’ve been waiting in line for 45 minutes to attend a show for which their are no real tickets — it’s all electronic, so as to prevent reselling and scalping. Now, the throng of diehards here to see a band that died 15 years ago, is herded into single-file lines. Women’s bags are checked. Men are given full-body pat downs. We’re all warned several times: no cameras, no video recorders, no audio recorders, no cell phone videos or pictures. I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to file for Level 3 Security Clearance. People talk in hushed tones. What is inside Track 29, in Chattanooga, isn’t meant to get out. Inside is an experience, ephemeral, to be stored in one’s mind and not one’s computer. It’s like the nineties. Entering this venue is entering a time machine. This is not surprising, considering that the band we’re all here to see famously sang “I wish’d I could save her in some sort of time machine.” Everyone thought Neutral Milk Hotel was dead; perhaps they were saved in that very same time machine.
Elf Power played their opening set; no one cares. It’s sad, but the truth is that no one was there to see a band that’s been touring since the mid 90s. Elf Power seemed to acknowledge the gravity of Neutral Milk Hotel’s return: the rapid turnaround from one song to the next was only disrupted for an acknowledgement that the last time Elf Power and Neutral Milk Hotel played together in Chattanooga was 1998. They played their last song — a very good “Everlasting Scream” — and the stage went dark again.
Finally, Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel’s leader, walks out alone. He picks up a guitar and, without a word, launches into “Two-Headed Boy”. At first I felt disbelief; his voice sounded weak and timid, as though this song wasn’t his, but someone else’s. But then something remarkable happened; he looked out from under his hat, braced himself, and let out the nasally, naked cry of “I am listening to hear where you are!” In that moment, it clicked. He ripped through the song with the same earth-shattering emotional intensity that has come to define him.
Mangum’s stage presence is mythic. Magnetic. His hair is a graying black, down to his shoulders, and interacts nebulously with a beard longer still. He looks more like Saddam Hussein emerging from the man-hole than his old self — an apt comparison considering that he was indie’s biggest recluse for over a decade. He’s still wearing the same disheveled sweaters, though, and has a simple green hat pulled over his hair. When he sings his body rhythmically sways back and forth, and his eyes look out with intensity from the shadow of his hat’s brim to some point in the back of the room. He has the ability to seem as though he’s staring into an infinity just beyond his reach, trying to reach it with a desperate ferocity that can’t help but draw an audience in.
The rest of the band — Scott Spillane, Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes (as well as some other, non-member musicians) — walk onto the stage just in time for the segue into the instrumental “Fool”. The other members of Neutral Milk Hotel are incredibly talented, something often forgotten under Mangum’s monolithic shadow. Spillane plays guitar occasionally, but mostly plays a dizzying array of brass instruments. Koster is most often found playing bass, but also acts as noisemaster for instrumentals like “[untitled]” and “Marching Theme” and plays the singing saw on several songs. Barnes plays drums, and does so with a mixture of tenacity and looseness.
Mangum was characteristically shy and understated; his comments were few and far between. Most were simple thank yous, but the end of every song was punctuated with a sincere, sheepish smile. Barnes, however, was tremendous fun onstage. When he wasn’t bouncing around while playing bass, he was publicly thanking the roadies for their hard work, responding to cries of “I love you!” from the crowd, or asking — with eyes wide enough to land aircraft in — “Did you see the moon tonight? It’s amazing!” Impressively, Spillane knew every word and sang along with Mangum just as the crowd did.
The set consisted of nearly all of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (“Communist Daughter” was the sole exclusion), some of the better cuts from On Avery Island, and rarities like “Ruby Bulbs”. The closed with an encore of the final three songs from Aeroplane — “Ghost”, “Untitled”, and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2″ — plus the B-side “Engine”, played with threadbare nostalgia befitting the legacy of a band so heavily canonized in indie music.
There was a moment, though, halfway through the show, where nearly all was lost. Mangum remained on stage while the other members left as the dark, verbose “Oh Comely” was played alone. It was an adequate performance of the 8 and a half minute centerpiece, until, only 2 minutes in, the sound of Mangum’s guitar cut out. It seemed like the kind of thing done deliberately — “Let’s cut out the music and let the crowd sing along!” — except it wasn’t. The sound didn’t come back. He took off his guitar and held it out for a roadie to take and fix, but no help came. It took another 4 minutes of the song before he was equipped with another guitar. Those four minutes were transcendent. Mangum, unarmed, was left alone with only his innocent, reedy voice to guide him. If you haven’t ever heard the song or read the lyrics, the fact that Mangum managed to remember them all under duress is amazing. That he somehow made it spectacular is miraculous. The crowd matched him word for word, note for note, Mangum’s voice rising and leading us through the dense verses. The line of “So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving/And pluck all your silly strings, and bend all your notes for me”, sang without a guitar, became the most powerfully defiant lyric I’ve ever heard.
Mangum’s guitar was finally back for the last few verses, but the show, and the way I felt about it, had shifted. I started the show feeling skeptical. I ended it feeling metamorphosed. It was the kind of show — like a great movie or book — that you churn around in your mind incessantly afterwards, haunted by some ghost of a feeling. Never before have I felt more connection with an artist than last night. It was powerful, cathartic, mysterious, and vulnerable. Saved in some sort of time machine, Neutral Milk Hotel are back.