Given the number of ‘final’ tours that never end and the overhyped reunions that wash over us every festival season, you’d be forgiven for having become a little cynical. Is this really the last we’ll see of The Rolling Stones? Will Peter Hook ever stop playing “Love Will Tear Us Apart?” The year 2014 has already seen the return of Outkast, The Libertines, The Pixies, and even Kate Bush—and it’s barely August.
Reunions can be an awkward, stressful business for fans and bands alike, and there’s a definite beauty in leaving something wonderful well alone. So when Neutral Milk Hotel—possibly the definitive ‘90s cult band—announced the first tour in 20 years since seminal album, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” and the group’s subsequent combustion, you’d also be forgiven for experiencing a kaleidoscope of feelings.
Postbahnhof had been sold out for months prior to Tuesday’s long-awaited Berlin show, and the crowd—looking much like the average clientele of your local boutique vinyl store—milled around the venue hours before doors. As the sun started to sink, the swarms of smokers and curbside Sterni drinkers headed inward, extra prompt and jittery, audibly excited.
A reverent hush filled the hall long before Jeff Mangum, Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes stepped out under the lights—the sight of the set crammed with microphones and a myriad of obscure brass instruments was enough to placate and quieten.
Eventually climbing on stage amidst raucous, passionate applause, and with no introduction, the band launched straight into original album opener, ‘The King of Carrot Flowers (1, 2 & 3).” A turbulent, erratic mountain of a trilogy, it encompasses everything that makes Neutral Milk Hotel so definitive: savage, exposed lyricism (“…and your mum would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder”), disarrayed, rattled cymbals, and a final horn section that makes you want to throw your head back and your arms wide. Every bit as luxuriously ramshackle and urgent as the original record, any prior apprehensions were firmly put to bed. Two decades have clearly not softened Neutral Milk Hotel (instead, the members have grown incredible beards) and it was a delighted crowd that yelped with joy when Part 3 clattered to a halt.
With barely pause for breath, Mangum counted in “2… 1,2,3,4”, heralding the start of “Holland, 1945″—a superficially jaunty but lyrically devastating dedication to Anne Frank – and the show rolled on, only gathering momentum. Selecting comprehensively from the entire back catalog, the setlist clearly and correctly anticipated a dedicated, well-versed audience.
Flying through a blend of “A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You,” “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,”and “Everything Is,” the instrumental and emotional diversity was staggering. Joined by multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Thal and Elf Power’s Laura Carter on accordion (amongst other things), a genuinely baffling array of instruments came and went. Imp-like in a bright red hat, Koster bounced joyfully around the stage, quietened only when he sat to play the saw with a bedraggled, sparsely strung bow. What was apparent—and no recording can show this fully—is how much these songs are meant to be felt rather than structured. By no means a seamless set, the songs came together through sheer will and passion rather than over-rehearsed togetherness, which is too often the killer of long-awaited, pressurized reunion shows.
It’s hard to pick a highlight. “Two Headed Boy”— a personal favorite—was haunting. A darkened, silent room swayed, absorbed by a solitary Mangum. His lyrics, noted for their obscure, psychedelic story-telling, pack a far harder punch when they’re told directly to you. Rejoined by the full band for the mournful, sweeping “The Fool,” it felt more like watching an ensemble cast perform a play of many parts—theatrical in both somberness and exuberance.
Neutral Milk Hotel, and Mangum in particular, is notoriously camera-shy. Despite having made one of the greatest indie records of all time (according to many top 50 Pitchfork-esque lists), there’s a dearth of information on the group and interview requests are rarely granted. There were posters throughout Postbahnhof asking politely for a ban of recording and photographic equipment, and it’s a testimony to fan loyalty that this was followed through. In an age of PR schemes and selfies, it’s special knowing that Tuesday’s renditions of “Naomi” and “Oh, Comely”—chorused by an emotional, word-perfect audience—were ours alone and will never be seen again.
While it’s probably true that any reunion band has fans as embarrassingly enthusiastic as this one, like a secret handshake, there’s a special sparkle in the eye of a person who, without stopping, could sing you all three parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers.” On Tuesday night, Postbahnhof’s sold-out crowd comprised of exactly these people, and they were rewarded by the most beautiful, jangle-y, chaotic Neutral Milk Hotel show any die-hard could hope for. That’s something no emotively-worded press release could ever fake.