“Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”
As Neutral Milk Hotel singer and guitarist Jeff Mangum sneered the final words of the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea title track Wednesday at Oakland’s The Fox Theater, it was a statement about the nature of existence, but came coupled with a knowing nod about the band’s history.
Buried behind his walking wall of beard, an unkempt mop of hair and engine driver hat, Mangum’s magnum opus may have developed into a cult classic since its 1998 release, but it left its creator in shambles.
Neutral Milk Hotel effectively closed shop as 1998 was ending. Mangum went into a lengthy period of isolation around the turn of the millennium. That made fans chuckle nervously when he confessed he sometimes visits the Bay Area “to wander around and talk to myself I’m not joking.”However, recent years have found Mangum playing live again. Prior to the band reuniting last year, he played a stint of solo shows, reviving his taste for live performance.
Wednesday's stop was the first of three sold out shows at The Fox Theater as well as Neutral Milk Hotel's first stop in the Bay Area in nearly 16 years. Multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, gleefully mismatched in red shoes, green jeans, yellow shirt and blue knit cap, asked for a show of hands for their last appearance at San Francisco's tiny Bottom of the Hill to a smattering of applause.
However, reunion tours make for nice victory laps. In the case of Neutral Milk Hotel, Aeroplane helped the group grow in esteem while it was away, making the band's revival an event both for old fans as well as its many newcomers.
At just shy of 90 minutes, fans got the Aeroplane celebration they wanted, with 10 of its 11 tracks on display.
Mangum took the stage alone and rattled off one of its most celebrated, “Two-Headed Boy,” revealing age has deepened his nasal delivery ever so slightly, but his voice is no less capable.
The band joined him for the second song, “The Fool,” swelling the backing sound with a surge of several brass players and two accordions. NMH’s other members were at turns mysterious, gentle and ramshackle depending upon the needs of the song.
They made “Holland, 1945” sound downright triumphant, with beardy brass specialist Scott Spillane mouthing the words to the song between trumpet blasts. Spillane was most expressive of his excitement to be back on stage, beaming with a smile and catching the eyes of fans in the crowd to sing along with them.
With two albums of material and a string of EPs, Neutral Milk Hotel played a fair chunk of its catalog, including super rarity “Ferris Wheel on Fire,” which showcased all sides of the band. To Mangum’s acoustic crooning, the band added flare ups that dissipated as easily as they appeared.
The band used an array of instruments, from a bowed saw to a zanzithophone, which is a sort of horn keyboard. It gave them a winking indie eclecticism, before realizing that they were doing this sort of thing long before the recent wave of indie musicians.
Near the close of the set, Mangum delivered a mesmerizing “Oh, Comely” mostly without support from the rest of the band. He stood alone in the spotlight, rattling off verse after verse, holding the crowd's eager gaze with ease.
It seemed as unlikely to those in the crowd as it did to Mangum that the experience would ever happen, cycling back to those words from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” about Mangum’s astonishment at our mere existence.
A Baby for Pree >
Grow Into You >
Leave Me Alone >
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1 >
King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Song Against Sex
Ruby Bulbs >
Snow Song Pt. 1
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2