Since the release of their last album in 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel have been MIA. 16 years on and there are no signs of their cult following dwindling, teenagers squash against the barrier while their original following hang back from the packed floor. They’ve been here before and nothing has changed.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s fall from the radar is easy to admire. From their experimental musical instruments to their on-stage shyness, their interests are solely in their music. No press, no photography, everything runs with the precision and politeness of a band who don’t like to play-up their brilliance. Lack of space doesn’t compromise civility as we squash onto the stairs in search of the perfect view.
The atmosphere is quiet, unlike anything else before. As lights go down the crowd is in pre-theatre show silence. Polite claps and minimal cheers greet lead singer Jeff Mangum as he timidly shifts to his microphone. He’s uneasy with his recognition, hiding behind a balaclava of facial hair as he breaks into a solo of ‘Two Headed Boy’. The rest of the band join Mangum on stage for The Fool, followed by Holland 1945 as a group of fans mosh carelessly close to a trio of improvisational musical saws. Oh to be 17 again. Scott Spillane’s multi-instrumental talent impresses, as solemn flugel- and French horns add an emotional depth, highlighted in ‘The King of Carrot Flowers’.
The no photography rule is soon broken as the band play cult-hit ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’. It’s a clever stance against the code of modern crowds who are intent on getting a share-worthy video on the path to social media brand expansion. The single flash turns twenty heads, all glaring sternly at the lone photographer.
Baggy cords and a childlike wooly hat not out of place in a Portlandia parody, bass player (amongst other things) Koster’s energetic stage presence is that of an infant with a bottomless tube of sweets; hyper, albeit endearing and entertaining. His musical saw is a charming addition not dissimilar to a Disney bird’s morning song. The bowed banjo is a southern-twanged string section, the cello bow worn from frantic strokes and hanging with horsehairs.
Mangum returns for a solo encore with ‘Two Headed Boy Pt 2’ before being once again joined by the band for closing song ‘Engine’, and that’s it. A small gesture of thanks and a naturally humble exit. The future of NMH may be uncertain, but the following that has been building on the release of an album all that time ago shows no signs of slowing.