Reclusive indie rock legends Neutral Milk Hotel stopped by the Kool Haus on January 19 for a triumphant show. As soon as the group’s lead singer and mastermind, Jeff Mangum, took the stage, strapped his guitar around his neck, and began to play their classic track, “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1”, the Toronto crowd of all ages started to dance and sing along. Anyone familiar with the Toronto concert scene knows how rare these displays of enthusiasm for a band can be, but it continued throughout the majority of the two-hour set.
Neutral Milk Hotel are an anomaly. The band is currently engaged in a reunion tour following a 15-year break they began on the heels of releasing their second album, 1998’s classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The band released the record, engaged in a short tour, and then disappeared. These were the days before the Internet could track everyone’s status, so for over a decade, no one knew where Mangum was. To see Neutral Milk Hotel in concert became a classic “imagine if” scenario.
That is, until Mangum announced a solo tour in 2009. He played two Toronto dates near the beginning of the tour. These shows were the first clues that a mind-blowing Neutral Milk Hotel reunion was in the works. After all, Mangum was the main mind behind the beautiful music of Neutral Milk Hotel, and if he was in the game again, it could all fall into place. The other members of Neutral Milk Hotel were all working musicians and regular parts of the Elephant 6 collective, which is the bigger artists’ enclave to which Neutral Milk Hotel belongs. Those 2009 solo shows were wonderful to attend, but something was still missing.
This all changed when Neutral Milk Hotel announced their 2013/14 reunion tour. For a band that disappeared off the face of the earth, they suddenly mounted one of the most intimidating tour schedules I’ve ever seen. This Toronto show fell smack-dab in the middle of the tour. It all proved wonderful, though, and they were loud, noisy, and fantastic. Scott Spillane sang along in clear ecstasy at bringing these songs to life, and Julian Kossner’s singing saw soared. Neutral Milk Hotel played every song that a fan could want to hear, which is admittedly not inconceivable given their small discography. The centrepiece of the show was the playing of “Oh Comely”, during which the band retreated for the beginning and gradually came back in. After that song, the set took a small step down, because the best had already happened.
The opening band, Elf Power, played with enthusiasm that exhibited everything great about pop music.
No amount of time with such an elusive band could be enough. Even though Mangum has aged, as we all have, this music sounded as fresh and special as it did pre-Y2K. The experience of seeing Neutral Milk Hotel in concert was a special moment that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. It was the kind of show any music lover gets to experience only so many times in his or her life.