Instruments sans players, Neutral Milk Hotel, Store Vega. Photo: Morten Aagaard Krogh
Having long been confused and surprised by the concerts that Copenhageners seem to completely ignore, there is some satisfaction in finally coming across one that people have come in droves to see. It is cult 90s folk-rockers Neutral Milk Hotel, favourite band of Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate, that drive an already frenzied audience to distraction by revisiting their tiny, if influential, discography.
There are no two ways about this, this is a reunion tour, but it is not exactly a nostalgia-fest. The material focuses very heavily on songs from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but it is a testament to the quality of the material that nothing sounds remotely dated. Which is not to say that this reviewer was instantly taken in by this set. The posters banning photographs are both welcome (countless gigs have been ruined by a sea of screen occluding the actual band) and at the same time worryingly earnest and serious. It turns out that this ban is extended to professional photographers, which explains the absence of pictures accompanying this review.
As frontman Jeff Magnum takes the stage alone and opens with “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” the atmosphere of erupting anticipation is infectious. Justifiably so, since the band’s 15 year hiatus means that for the younger members of the audience this is the first time they have ever had the opportunity to see them live. This is a concert that to some extent cannot possibly go wrong: the material is so familiar to even the casual listener, and the band is made up of musicians who have all had their separate prolific careers. And for the most part it is indeed a complete success, though the man at the sound desk managed to completely fudge up the mix on “Holland, 1945”, which should earn him 13 life-time’s worth of bad luck.
Even in their recordings, Neutral Milk Hotel have always had a ramshackle quality, teetering on the edge between disaster and brilliance. Though time has not mellowed them, the sense of risk is not quite as evident. Instead the drones of brass instruments, distorted acoustic guitar, and the bowed banjo and musical saw of the pixie-like Julian Koster, all merge and swirl wonderfully with Magnum’s nasal singing. This is, effectively, acoustic noise-pop. From this perspective, even moments of solo acoustic guitar share in this tone, driven by Magnum’s voice and the slow chord changes. No matter how revered their recordings are, they are a poor substitute for the band in their living, panting presence.
Though there is almost no talk between songs, except for a couple of brief thank-yous from Koster, the sense of engagement with the audience and the music is undeniable. Whenever Scott Spillane isn’t busting his lungs into one of a myriad of different horn instruments he is chanting along, vigorously though inaudibly, and Koster himself spends entire songs jumping clockwise like a whirling Dervish. From Magnum we only get a few bows, but in the absence of anything else, they feel genuine enough.