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Neutral Milk Hotel reunite for a packed venue in D.C.

Molly Carl
Assist. Arts & Culture Editor

On January 31st, at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. the inconceivable happened; 3,702 fans gathered for a concert on the first tour of the band Neutral Milk Hotel since 1998.
Neutral Milk Hotel is an American based band formed in 1989 by its lead singer Jeff Mangum. Known for their off-beat, unique sound, branded “Fuzz Folk,” the band has since become somewhat of a cult classic, influencing numerous modern day bands like Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, and the Lumineers. Neutral Milk Hotel made its largest splash during the 1990’s where it released its first EP and two subsequent full length albums. The first EP, “Everything Is” was released in 1994. Two years later, the first full length album, “On Avery Island,” was released. However, 1998 is the year the band is best remembered for as it was then that it released its most notable album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It was after that album’s subsequent tour that the band declared hiatus, and Mangum went off the grid, that is until 2010 when he resurfaced to play several solo shows sporadically throughout the country. The unthinkable occurred when, in April of 2013, the band announced that it would be reuniting to play its first tour in 15 years.

Neutral Milk Hotel performed at a packed Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
Neutral Milk Hotel performed at a packed Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

What’s truly remarkable is that, after 15 years of inactivity, the band has sold out numerous dates on its tour, including six shows that all took place around the New York City area.
At the show in D.C., Neutral Milk Hotel was preceded by Elf Power, a Lo-Fi indie rock band that originated in Athens, Georgia in 1994. Elf Power has released 15 studio albums, three of which were released with record label Elephant 6, a label both produced and used by the members of Neutral Milk Hotel. While this band was well-received by the crowd, after its set the air seemed to hum with almost palpable excitement.
Neutral Milk Hotel began its set with Jeff Mangum walking out onto stage by himself silently, diving straight into Two-Headed Boy, the fourth track from “Aeroplane.” As he was finishing the song, he was joined on stage by Scott Spillane, Julian Koster, and Jeremy Barnes, the members who were present during the 1999 tour promoting “Aeroplane.” As Mangum finished his song, the band launched seamlessly into “The Fool,” the following track from “Aeroplane.” Then, in keeping with the tracklist, they played the sixth song from Aeroplane,” “Holland, 1945.” Then, to mix it up, the band played the fourth track from “On Avery Island,” titled “A Baby for Pree,” followed by the eighth track, “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone.” Between the songs, the band didn’t stop to talk to the audience as performers are often wont to do. Instead, it transitioned from one song to another in a manner that conveyed excitement and devotion rather than snobbishness. The next song in the repertoire is the first and title track from the band’s “Everything Is” EP. Then, it was back to “Aeroplane,” with the first and second tracks, “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” followed by the third and title track, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It was during this, the band’s most well-known song, characteristics that make Neutral Milk Hotel so unique were truly demonstrated. At one point during the song, one of the band members took a saw that was sitting on stage and began to run a length of piano wire across it, causing a quixotically musical whine that fans have come to know so well. Songs they performed also included trumpets, trombones, accordions, French horns, and various equally unconventional instruments. It was after this song that the music stopped and Mangum finally addressed the crowd. While his address was short, the words, “Thank you all so much for being here. Thank you all for listening to our music,” rang with utter sincerity and awe, as though he himself could not believe that almost 4,000 fans were seated in front of him to hear his 15 year old songs being played. After he spoke those few words, and several fans shouted their devotion through the brief respite from music, the songs picked back up with “Naomi,” track ten from “On Avery Island,” “Ferris Wheel on Fire,” a box set release, and “Oh Comely,” track eight from “Aeroplane.” Then, after playing “Song Against Sex,” track one from “On Avery Island,” a song was played that predated the band itself. Before Neutral Milk Hotel was Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum recorded several songs under the name “Milk,” one of which was “Ruby Bulbs,” which the band played that night. Then, to wrap up the set, the band finished with “Snow Song Pt. 1” from “Everything Is.” Then, wordlessly but waving all the while, the band took its exit. The audience was deafening as the excited fans screamed for an encore. The band obliged, playing the ninth, tenth, and eleventh tracks from “Aeroplane,” “Ghost,” “[untitled],” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” respectively. The final song of the night, “Engine,” is heralded as the most popular “non-album” track, as it is found only in a few places. The song can be found on the Milk demo tape “Beauty,” as well as the b-side for the single release of “Holland, 1945.” Before the final song began, Mangum said his thanks to the band and to the audience, and introduced “Engine” as a lullaby that would bring the show to a close. The audience sat on the very edge of its seat as Mangum and the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel brought this historical musical event to a close, before walking wordlessly off of the stage, leaving the audience to wonder if they would ever return.