Regardless of when you first heard of Neutral Milk Hotel—either during their initial run in the 90s or during their decade and a half of dormancy—and regardless if you loved them or hated them, Petaluma, California is probably not where anyone ever thought they’d see Neutral Milk Hotel for the final time.(Plus, it’s not like they played a big “hometown” show in Athens, GA or anywhere else of significance to the band for their first show back, which was in Baltimore. It’s fitting then, in a way, that while their return seemed monumentally momentous to fans, for the band, they just showed up, toured, and now recede back into the ether.)
Yet the symbolism of the band playing their final show “for the foreseeable future” at a theater called the Phoenix is either very ironic or completely appropriate. After a 15 year hiatus, the band rose again in 2013 and are now ending their tour—and possibly their existence as a band—at the seemingly random location of Petaluma, CA, about an hour north of San Francisco.
Then again, nothing about Neutral Milk Hotel has been exactly conventional. Their road to stardom, reverie, and sold out shows across the world took a circuitous route, gaining more notoriety in their years of absence than they ever did in their initial run. Singer Jeff Mangum’s years of reclusiveness raised the legend of the singer and the band to the point of JD Salinger/Bill Watterson proportions. His slow and gradual return—first solo, then with a few sporadic guest appearances by members of NMH, then finally giving fans the full band experience they’d waited a decade and half for— has let the Neutral Milk Hotel resurgence cycle run on for years now.
And now, at the height of their popularity, Mangum is pulling the plug again. At least this time, unlike 15 years ago, we all got ample warning to catch NMH before it was too late. And really, it’s a miracle this cycle has lasted long enough for the band to tour the country multiple times. When Mangum first reemerged in late 2011, it seemed like his solo shows were the best we could hope for. Now, at the end, it’s hard to imagine that we might ever have been satisfied with just those solo sets. Because though Mangum is undoubtedly the songwriter and guiding hand of the band, the songs work best in a full band, which swelled to 6+ members during this reunion.
Julian Koster’s accordion, concertina, singing saws, bass, and odd sideshow keyboards add a signature sound to NMH that goes beyond the mere quirkiness of those instruments (and the man himself). And Scott Spillane’s horns are vital as well. Favorites like “Holland 1945,” “Ghost,” “Song Against Sex,” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” wouldn’t work without the trumpets, french horns, and trombones. Plus, out of all the members onstage, Spillane seems easily the most enthusiastic, singing along with more energy and joie de vivre and Mangum. And with each successive viewing of NMH, and as the awe of actually seeing Jeff Mangum in person and performing wears off, it’s become evident that, while Mangum is the driving force behind the band, drummer Jeremy Barnes is the backbone and the sneaky MVP. He is just an incredibly controlled tornado behind the kit. It’s amazing how wild and still he can be at the same time, and his fills constantly threaten to overmatch the rest of the band. He’s also sporting an outstanding Wyatt Earp mustache these days, which is fitting since he looks like he’d never lose a quick-draw showdown.
Robert Schneider, mastermind behind the Apples in Stereo as well as one of the creators of the Elephant Six Collective and the producer for NMH’s records, opened the show with an acoustic set, accompanied by Apples bandmate John Ferguson. (Schneider commented that when performing as an acoustic duo, he and Ferguson go collectively by the moniker “Spaceflyte.” He may not have been joking.) The set was loose and casual, with most of the songs picked from audience member requests, whether Schneider could remember how to play them or not. This led to some awkward bits of fumbling guitar and songs cut short, but also to some really splendid moments, like Schneider asking the audience (really more of a command, since the audience requested the song) to sing the chorus melody on “Sun is Out” so he and Ferguson could sing the harmonies. It was nice little moment. They also played the song from an Apples in Stereo-centric episode of Powerpuff Girls, “Signal In The Sky.”
Neutral Milk Hotel came out shortly after 9:30, and played a 21-song set, to a rapturous crowd, who might’ve been worked up into a fever pitch by the music or by the muggy old theater lacking any sort of climate control/open window. Probably both. They were effusive in their praise/love for the audience and fellow band members throughout the night, and it definitely felt like the end of an era. Robert Schneider, prodded by Mangum, came out to play guitar with the band for the encore, before the stage cleared for Mangum’s usual solo concert closer, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” which was outstanding. But the rest of the band filed back on stage after that, to perform the “lullaby” b-side, “Engine,” which Spillane said was the first song they ever performed for an audience (the audience being Koster’s grandmother.) They finished shortly after 11PM, exchanged hugs, and then Neutral Milk Hotel was over. Again. For now.
Check out the last song Neutral Milk Hotel performed, as well as the setlist below, plus a couple blurry photos taken of the extremely camera-shy band…
Neutral Milk Hotel @ The Phoenix Theater, Petaluma, CA. June 11th, 2015
I Will Bury You in Time
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One
The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Ghost (with Robert Schneider)
[untitled](with Robert Schneider)
Two-Headed Boy, Part Two