Until last year, concert audiences hadn’t heard from Jeff Mangum in years. Neutral Milk Hotel’s singer-songwriter finally emerged out of what seemed like seclusion to play his old songs, which had been growing in popularity ever since he put them on record. During those concerts in 2012— I saw one in Chicago and one in Milwaukee — it felt like a solo acoustic set by Mangum was all we really needed. After all, his voice, lyrics and acoustic guitar strumming are really the heart of Neutral Milk Hotel’s best-known (and best) album, 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
But a Jeff Mangum solo concert wasn’t quite the same thing as a Neutral Milk Hotel concert. And now, continuing to move at his own strange pace, Mangum has decided to bring the band back together for an extended tour (including original members Jeremy Barnes, Scott Spillane and Julian Koster as well as a couple of auxiliary players). The first dates that were announced didn’t include a stop in Chicago, but I snagged a ticket for Neutral Milk Hotel’s Oct. 15 concert at the Canopy Club in Urbana. (Since then, the band has scheduled two concerts at the Riviera, on Feb. 6 and 7, both of which have sold out.)
The Urbana concert had moments similar to last year’s Mangum solo concerts, when it was essentially a solo performance in front of an enraptured crowd (including a sizable contingent of young folks who were toddlers the last time Neutral Milk Hotel performed). Mangum was all alone when he came out for the first song, “Two-Headed Boy” — with a long, shaggy beard and a green cap, giving him a look somewhat like Woody Allen disguised as the banana-republic dictator in Bananas, except for an incongruous brown sweater.
But then, as “Two-Headed Boy” segued into “The Fool,” another five musicians joined Mangum on the stage. When the horns and accordions and drums kicked in, the songs took on a much more rollicking air. At times, Mangum even danced. This was the full Neutral Milk Hotel experience — those intense, pleading, acoustic exclamations by Mangum, juxtaposed with Salvation Army band tunes, Eastern European funeral marches and a touch of psychedelic rock.
The songs sounded much as they did on the original records from the 1990s. This band clearly remembered well how to play those tunes. But more importantly, it was a spirited and stirring performance — even better than last year’s Mangum solo shows.
Another group from the Elephant 6 collective, Elf Power, opened the show with a set of buoyant psychedelic rock. And as in the past, Mangum forbade photography. As he got ready to play the first song and a few people held up their cellphones, Mangum wagged a finger and urged people to enjoy the music in the moment it was happening. (The security guards did their best to make sure no one took any pictures or video after that.)
And so, the only photographic evidence I have to show for the evening is the above cellphone picture of the marquee outside the Canopy Club. The last time I was at this venue, it was the Thunderbird movie theater, and I was a college student scrounging up loose change to see “Platoon.” It was startling to see that some of the decor from that era, including paintings of totem poles, still survive.
SET LIST: Two-Headed Boy / The Fool / Holland, 1945 / A Baby for Pree / Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone / Everything Is / The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One / The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three / In the Aeroplane Over the Sea / Oh Comely / Ferris Wheel on Fire / Naomi / Song Against Sex / Ruby Bulbs / Snow Song Pt. 1 / ENCORE: Ghost / [untitled] / Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two / Engine