The Truth About Music: Play It Loud

"What's hot, what's not, and whats next in pop music"

Neutral Milk Hotel Come Home Again in Port Chester

[Note: as per Jeff Mangum’s request, there is no photography or video allowed at Neutral Milk Hotel shows.]

“So it’s kinda like Mumford & Sons?” Asks the server at Sams Bar & Grill in Port Chester as I try to describe Neutral Milk Hotel to him. While I admit my initial reaction was to refute his assumption, after a moment to process, I realized he was right. While Mumford are a more general Americana, the recent big time revival in mainstream alt-folk has a direct through line past the weird, brilliant collective that is Elephant 6.

Founded in the early 90’s by Jeff Mangum and his friends, Elephant 6 Records wasn’t a record label, but a collective of musicians who all played together in various projects, none greater than Jeff’s flagship band Neutral Milk Hotel. In 1998 they released In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, a strong contender for the greatest album ever released under the blanket classification of “Indie.”

The album was well received, and their live shows were getting a reputation as must see events. After the Aeroplane tour cycle ended, fans waited patiently to hear news of a new release. 14 years later, fans were still waiting for Jeff to release any new material, as mental health issues and general anxiety have seen him retired to a seemingly happy mundane life. Then the seemingly impossible happened, after playing a round of solo shows, Jeff got the original Neutral Milk Hotel lineup back together and started touring again.

While I was certainly excited to get my ticket to their show at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, I was anxious at the same time. As a general rule, I’m always weary of seeing a long defunct band get back together. While I enjoyed seeing Pavement in 2010, there was a part of me that would rather see a bunch of 19 year olds play their pavement imitations. As Kim Gordon once said, live music is about watching someone stand on stage and believe in themselves, and it can be hard to recapture that feeling when the crowd is already completely won over.

Thankfully, before the full band even entered the stage, my fears were put to rest. Jeff Mangum stepped to his microphone wearing a lowly drawn hat and a long, concealing beard. As he began strumming the chords to “Two Headed Boy” and singing those now immortal lyrics, he became the same clean shaven young man who recorded the song 17 years ago. There was no reservation to his performance, and as the rest of the band took the stage to play the instrumental waltz “The Fool,” it was clear that the old gang still felt like they needed to make you believe in them.

For a hypnotic 20 songs, Neutral Milk Hotel recreated in real time the gorgeous tapestries of sound that make up their discography. While the singing saw and the Zanzithophone might sound like descriptors for an aimless jam project, when employed in their specific task within songs like “Ghost” and “Two Headed Boy Part 2,” they unlock that secret ingredient that makes these songs so special. There was a level of comfortable joy in all of the band members, and while the songs were played to sound as they do on the recordings, there was still a spontaneous energy in the air.

Seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live, and understanding all of the specific sonic details that went into crafting their songs is revealing. They are one of the most influential indie acts of all time, yet no one has ever been able to accurately recapture their specific air of kaleidoscopic energy. Seeing the chemistry between these strange folks, and the myriad of archaic instruments they have a collective mastery of, it’s easy to understand why their sound has stayed so singular all these years later. Jeff Mangum may never release a new song again, and that’s ok. His discography as Neutral Milk Hotel still has so much to say, and what a joy it is to see him out there saying it to sold out arena’s again with his old friends.

Add A Comment