MADISON, Wis. -- As he quietly walked into the spotlight, Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum certainly looked the part of a rock 'n' roll recluse.
Nearly 15 years ago, Mangum mothballed his underground-rock group just as they had released an unquestioned lo-fi masterpiece and were on the verge of mainstream acceptance. Instead of embracing stadium success, Mangum sought to disappear from public view, seemingly silencing his musical muse forever.
Now, Mangum has returned and on this Saturday evening concert at the Orpheum Theatre, hiding beneath an Army cap, long hair and a "Duck Dynasty"-like beard streaked with veins of gray, it was initially unclear if he was really a Howard Hughes hermit or perhaps, an indie-rock messiah. But, as he and the reconstituted Neutral Milk Hotel made plain throughout this performance, this second coming proves miracles really do happen. And many long-suffering fans left hoping more will come.
In an ironic twist, Saturday's show came one night before the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," an event that many Baby Boomers recall as a cultural
watershed of popular culture embracing rock 'n' roll worth remembering all these years later.
By contrast, the Boomers' children in Generation X and the Millennial Generation came to the downtown venue for their own nostalgic celebration. Neutral Milk Hotel and its landmark album, "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," wasn't something spread by weapons of mass dispersion like transmission towers, vacuum tubes and media mania. Instead, this reunion show was a tribute to a conspiracy. A love of secret music created for art's sake and passed by word of mouth or blog post and defined by a shared, stubborn conviction that believes not all that glitters is gold.
This determined aversion to Beatle-esque popular consumption and fan hysteria has kept Neutral Milk Hotel quiet for all these years. The band, formerly based in Athens, Ga., was the leading light of the psychedelia -obsessed Elephant 6 Collective, along with the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control and Of Montreal. And with their absence, their legend grew. After years of silence and scattered rumors, Mangum came back to performing only three years ago. He reconvened the original band in 2013 and has been touring the country for much of the past six months, something of a thank-you gift to those that kept their myth alive.
Such is the passage of time that Mangum's wooly appearance rendered him unrecognizable at first glance. Only his oversized ski lodge sweater -- a familiar fashion choice from the old days -- was a dead giveaway to any whose only glimpse of this band is a smattering of performance clips on YouTube from the late '90s.
But, as Mangum began to manically strum the first two chords of the "Two-Headed Boy" and listeners heard that familiar, searing voice soar above the guitar strings, it was clear who it was and that this wildman was fully back from the wilderness. His singing was slightly deeper than before but no less passionate, as familiar imagery of his hysterical poetry came leaping forth from the amplifiers.
As the intense song concluded, his furious strumming eased and his voice began to slur and wander. His bandmates filed onto the stage and just as on the album, the ensemble perfectly segued into "The Fool," sounding like a sorrowful Salvation Army horn band with oomph-pah-pah drumming, two accordions and three horns. If there were ever any doubt this troop would/could recreate its sublimely ramshackle pop ditties, it dissipated at this moment.
Song by song, the members of Neutral Milk Hotel established that their once and future dreams of realizing a kind of homespun "Pet Sounds" doesn't just exist on vinyl. The songs -- hybrids of psychedelic rock, European folk, hardcore punk, free jazz and post-modern sound collages -- are things they could reproduce in the flesh. With the core four-piece of Mangum, horn player Scott Spillane, drummer Jeremy Barnes and utility player Julian Koster in place, assorted backing musicians came and went as the material dictated. (Many of these supporting players came from the band's Elephant 6 chums in Elf Power, who opened the show with a 40-minute set of Kinks-inspired garage-rock pop.) While Mangum remained stage left with his acoustic guitar, his bandmates traded oddball instruments like accordions, zanzithophone, singing saw, a banjo played with a bow and assorted brass instruments
Some songs changed slightly as they sprang to life. "Holland, 1945," a sincere, surrealistic love song to Holocaust victim Anne Frank, is Minutemen-derived rolling thunder on disc. Live, the band played it like a lopping, acoustic-guitar tumble that was sometimes overridden by those singing along. Lesser-known compositions like "Everything Is" and "A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You" were overtaken by punk-rock exuberance with Mangum and company bouncing and bounding onstage. During the later song, the first appearance of Koster's singing saw was greeted with approving cheers like the return of a favorite sitcom character.
Speaking of favorites, Mangum clustered them by lashing together three of the most-loved "Aeroplane" songs into a suite: "The King Of Carrot Flowers, Part 1," "The King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 2 & 3" and the record's title track. The three share a kind of early Van Morrison, fever-dream quality to the lyrics and malleable, melodic whimsy that make a union an easy fit. As Mangum's yelping skipping above the groove, acoustic guitars blended with dissonance from an accordion, bow-played banjo or singing saw. When "Part 2 & 3" moved uptempo, Barnes' powerful, jazzy drumming transformed this sing-along music into something explosive.
As these and other songs proved, the musical partnership of Mangum and Barnes is pivotal to Neutral Milk Hotel's success. When he wasn't singing, Mangum turned around to face the drummer, whose swing adeptly managed each song's shifting dynamics. The drummer made each snare crack sound like a Roman candle going off. With Mangum and Barnes supervising the essential rhythm, it remained Spillane and Koster's roles to dress up the songs with unique sounds and bizarre instrumentation.
Mangum's bandmates left the stage as he dove into "Oh Comely" with just his acoustic guitar and droning vocalizations, leading the crowd in an impromptu sing-along. Barnes returned with an accordion, Koster took to the singing saw and Spillane and the others played a bouquet of horns to transform the song into a strange, spaghetti western soundtrack.
It's with the flexibility of his band that Mangum was able to take piece like "Snow Song, Part 1" off their debut album, "On Avery Island," and transform it from a fuzzed-out ditty into an emotional torch song. It began as warbling sound collage and gently groaned and grew into a powerful set closer. Spillane and others decorated each verse with muted horn accents while Barnes, bathed in a lemon-yellow spotlight, delivered rat-tat drum fills that echoed the wail in Mangum's voice.
The first two songs of the band's encore again followed the running order of "Aeroplane." "Ghost" is a post-rock rock reel that built in restrained intensity as guitars strummed insistently and horns murmured, leading up to Laura Carter, of Elf Power, playing the zanzithophone to conjure an oboe-like coda. As on the record, this was just a preamble though for the instrumental "Untitled," an exuberant jig featuring uilleann pipes that takes listeners through a too-brisk tour of an imaginary carnival. As the crowd began to cheer and thrash about, the sounds of the pipes riled the audience like a tribe of Celtic warriors as woozy trombones and calliope keyboards buzzed through and around.
As a finale, the band opted to close with a quieter requiem reflecting Mangum's most innocent sentiments and lyrical insights. "Two-Headed Boy, Part 2" was a stark, moving acoustic rover that got many in the crowd to raise their lighters. Lines like "secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight" took on new poignancy given Mangum's withdrawal and are sure to inspire more analysis and theorizing on music blogs. It was followed by the otherworldly "Engine," which the band told the crowd was a lullaby. Both creepy and beautiful, Koster's singing saw quivered and cooed around Mangum's broken-down strum, a sea-shanty accordion and low, mooing horns.
While these selections might seem off-the-wall when the band could have closed with something with more oomph, the combo's choices underscored their commitment to weirdness and to revealing the beauty hidden within. There were none in the theater who appeared dissatisfied or who wouldn't have made similar decisions.
In his only major statement to the crowd, Mangum -- after he gave a couple of pesky cell-phone photographers the finger for snapping pictures -- composed himself offered sincere gratitude to the faithful.
"And thank you so much everyone for listening to our music for all these years. It's meant so much to us," he said.
There were no promises made for future. No hint of another return or even new music. But as Neutral Milk Hotel proved on Saturday, resurrections can happen. And miracles can too.