Like Helen of Troy was said to be “the face that launched a thousand ships,” Neutral Milk Hotel is the group that launched a thousand indie bands. Though the band has only been around since the late ’80s, fans revere Neutral Milk Hotel as a rare unicorn. Not only has their eclectic, lo-fi sound inspired countless bands, but founder Jeff Mangum was an elusive mystery for the better part of the ’00s, only re-emerging in the last five years to shock music lovers with surprise shows and then announce a full-fledged tour.
Last night's sold out show at the Masonic Auditorium was part of what the band calls its “last tour for the foreseeable future,” making it just that much more special. Circulatory System, another band in Neutral Milk Hotel’s Elephant 6 collective started off the night. But it wasn’t until Mangum stepped onto the stage that the crowd erupted, pounding fists, jumping up and down and even embracing.
Mangum started the set with “I Will Bury You in Time” and launched next into “Holland, 1945” without hesitation. The fan favorite, a boisterous, seemingly joyous song with a much deeper, serious story about WWII, was the first time we heard the horn section. Throughout the show, two band members switched off between several horns each: French horns, trombones, trumpets… the list goes on.
The musicianship was incredible, as each band member switched from horns to synthesizers, a musical saw, bells, an accordion, and other mysterious objects. For the most part, five people played musical chairs with the instruments onstage, but a violinist joined the band for a few songs. Mangum, however, mostly stayed in one place, strumming his guitar at a sometimes-furious pace, his voice ringing out clearly from the speakers as the band took on most of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the seminal album that catapulted the band to cult status.
No matter how loudly fans sang along to songs like “King of Carrot Flowers Parts 1-3” or “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Mangum’s voice towered above everything, strong and powerful. The force of his vocal prowess felt like it was perfectly scratching an itch. There’s nothing pretty or soothing about it, but it’s that ever-familiar comfort that never wavers as your ears suck up the ghoulish sounds of the saw and the constantly changing tempos of each song.
Toward the middle of the set, the band left the stage, so Mangum could raise a room full of heartbeats with “Two-Headed Boy.” His bandmates rejoined him for “Naomi” and “Song Against Sex,” some of the songs representing On Avery Island. “Oh Comely” was a highlight, with nonsensical words that somehow made sense when Mangum sang them.
The encore, shaped like a bell curve, started slow with “Little Birds,” but “Ghost” sped things up before the band went wild, dancing around the stage for “untitled.” Wrapping up with the thoughtful “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” and “Engine,” the crowd left the venue in a calm stupor after dozens of thank yous from the band. Could this be the last time we ever see Neutral Milk Hotel in Cleveland... or anywhere? Either way, it was a very special night to spend with musical heroes playing songs familiar, cathartic, and slightly unsettling, just the way Mangum wants it to be.