By Michael Lello
Photo by Jason Riedmiller
ITHACA, N.Y. — Neutral Milk Hotel released just enough music to create a sense of mystery. The Athens, Ga., group only released two proper albums (one of them, “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea,” an indie cult classic) and were/are led by frontman Jeff Magnum, a shadowy figure who rarely conducts interviews and doesn’t allow photos at his concerts.
Letting Neutral Milk Hotel live only as a memory would only grow its legend, but Magnum has reunited with the “Aeroplane” lineup of Scott Spillane, Julian Koster and Jeremy Barnes to play under the NMH banner again beginning last year, giving fans an opportunity to witness in person something they hadn’t been able to see since the late 1990s — or at all.
The band began its 2014 U.S. tour at the State Theatre of Ithaca on Monday, playing before an alternately rapt and vociferous audience. Magnum’s songs, and the band’s multi-instrumental performances, create a sense of otherworldliness; the music, and fact that NMH was playing live, an unlikely proposition for more than a decade, combined to create a magnificently surreal concert experience.
Following a catchy, jangly and enjoyable opening set by fellow Elephant 6 band Elf Power, Magnum entered the stage alone, and launched into “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One,” just him and his guitar. His bandmates – augmented by valuable touring member Jeremy Thal – emerged for a feeback-laden transition into parts two and three of “Carrot Flowers.” “I love you Jesus Christ,” Magnum sang, his powerful and reedy vocals ringing out in the stately concert hall. Koster bowed his banjo and Spillane, a rambunctious, burly figure who mouthed lyrics all evening, unleashed trumpet blasts as the song went from understated to raucous.
The collective skipped ahead to “Aeroplane’s” sixth track, “Holland, 1945,” another upbeat number, and then “A Baby For Pree,” from the band’s 1996 debut “On Avery Island.” Koster bowed a saw while Spillane played a mellophone.
“Two-Headed Boy Pt. One,” with Elf Power’s Laura Carter on horn creating a three-part horn reverie with Spillane and Thal, was another mid-set highlight. Barnes’ snare drum rolls added to the song’s elegiac feel. The “Aeroplane” title track was another well-received song, and was contrasted sharply with the heavy, crunchy “Naomi.” “Ferris Wheel On Fire,” the title track from NMH’s 2011 EP of previously recorded songs, was slow and lazy, Magnum singing “I am holding you under my skin” over expansive, loping chords and Koster’s guttural synthesizer.
“Oh Comely” was an arresting and representatively weird selection. Magnum performed it solo, drawing out a vocal note, knocking percussively on his guitar and singing of powerful pistons, sugary sweet machines and the smell of semen. Spillane returned to the stage to add horn, and Barnes, who played drumkit for most of the show, played accordion while Koster played saw.
“Song Against Sex,” “Ruby Bulbs” and “Snow Song, Part One,” ended the set proper. The deliberate and dark “Ruby Bulbs,” from “Ferris Wheel,” was arguably the oddest song of the night, with various horns, Koster playing a bell and a guest guitarist creating a dense blanket of music for lyrics like “I need to paste your skin around the mailbox and hold the postman in your smile.”
The encore consisted of “Ghost,” “[untitled]” with Thal on a bagpipe-like instrument, “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” and a rollicking “Engine.”
Magnum’s poetry, without music, is fascinating enough, but when it’s set to the dramatic music of Neutral Milk Hotel, it is infused with a vibrancy and attractiveness that warrants the savant status that he has achieved – it’s a whole other animal. That the band is again playing concerts is a gift.