It’s time for a confession: I never saw Jeff Mangum or his legendary band, Neutral Milk Hotel, perform back in the day.
Sure, I heard the songs then, and I’ve listened to the recordings obsessively in recent years.
But seeing Jeff’s gradual return to the spotlight at the NYC benefit for Chris Knox at 2010, and at various shows he’s done since then, I feel like I’ve gotten to know him.
But Wednesday night was really special. It was Jeff in full bloom, reunited with his Neutral Milk Hotel bandmates and a few extra folks to fill out the sound. While the venue, the nicely renovated Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y., was bigger than most places NMH played back in the day, the show felt intimate, human, and direct.
Jeff, sporting what at least one member of the audience called out as an “awesome beard,” let the performance do most of the talking. As usual, he said very little, except to offer thanks to the audience for showing up. But his face and his singing spoke volumes.
He opened the set alone in the spotlight, on stage left, surrounded by instruments ready for the band that was soon to join him. Equipped only with an arch-top guitar, Jeff launched into an incredibly impassioned version of “Two-Headed Boy” before he was joined by the band for a 19-song set that had the crowd on the floor down front moshing — yes, moshing — in ways that seemed foreign to some of them.
NMH, which at its core is a quartet of Jeff plus bass, saw, and accordion player Julian Koster, horn player Scott Spillane, and drummer Jeremy Barnes (A Hawk and a Hacksaw) swelled to a septet at times, when joined by multi-instrumentalist and Bang on a Can stalwart Jeremy Thal, Laura Carter from the opening act Elf Power, and Astra Taylor, a filmmaker who also is married to Jeff.
Jeff seemed in very good spirits. Julian was as goofy as I would have expected. Scott was clearly having a lot of fun playing horns and such, and seemed to really get into every song.
Jeremy Barnes looks like he belongs in another band, or maybe an old porn flick with his mustache, but he was stupendous, very locked in on the kit and, later in the set, on accordion.
Jeff took a solo turn two other times during the show — singing “Oh Comely” about midway through and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” as what at first appeared to be the close of the show, after two encore tunes with the full band.
But the band rejoined Jeff for the only tune announced by name that night — “Engine,” introduced with a bit of hesitance as a “lullaby” by the white -bearded Scott Spillane.
If you were hoping for new songs on this reunion tour, consider your hopes dashed. Every tune was from the band’s well-loved catalogue. And Jeff gave no hint at all that he’s working on anything at all. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s not working on songs, just that he’s not ready to share them.
I’m looking forward to seeing them again on Thursday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Tap or click here for a complete setlist from Wednesday’s show.
Tap or click here for The New York Times review of last week’s show in Jersey City.