Live review: Neutral Milk Hotel at the Ogden Theatre in Denver - Reverb

Neutral Milk Hotel at the Ogden Theatre, 3-31-14 (review)

Returning for the first time in more than 15 years, Neutral Milk Hotel performed an unkempt and literate set at the Ogden Theatre on Monday to a crowd many times bigger than it would have in the '90s.

Returning for the first time in more than 15 years, Neutral Milk Hotel performed an unkempt and literate set at the Ogden Theatre on Monday to a crowd many times bigger than it would have in the ’90s.

By Matt Miller and John Wenzel

As Jeff Mangum took the stage at the Ogden Theatre on Monday — bearded, draped a ragged sweater, and less shy than his reputation would suggest — the sold-out audience happily bobbed through the opening verse of “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” before hearing the entirety of his reunited band.

Mangum strummed, sang about rattlesnakes and sex, and asserted himself as the band leader while the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel slowly picked up their instruments across the cluttered stage. As in the recorded version of the song, the band wrapped a raucous, punk-style finish over Mangum’s acoustic skeleton.

Touring for the first time in 15 years, Mangum, along with his full band, made the return to Denver with no new music but two albums-worth of songs that have been devoured, analyzed and elevated into something far more powerful than nostalgia. Despite playing an ostensibly solo show a couple years back, it was clear from the nonstop singing at the Ogden on Monday that a chorus of voices were trained to emulate the reclusive songwriter, superfans luxuriating in their musical idol’s presence.

And Mangum’s voice, with its nasally, metallic, unwavering familiarity, rose above the crowd — even at the night’s loudest moments — just as fans have gotten used to on the recorded product and countless late-night acoustic singalongs.

With cell phones thoughtfully stowed away (per the artist’s request — which was essentially held over from the previous night’s St. Vincent show), a modest lighting setup and the sea of plaid on stage and in the audience, this could have been the scene of a Neutral Milk Hotel show in 1998. The only difference was the size of the crowd and venue, which was many times bigger than anything the band would have played while it was still releasing and recording music as part of the Denver- and Athens, Ga.-rooted Elephant Six collective. Judging by the Xs on a number of hands, this was also the first time many in the crowd had seen Neutral Milk Hotel — proof of the band’s lasting influence on modern indie music.

As on its iconic 1998 album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the band then moved into “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3.” After the song’s fuzzed out, folk-turned-punk chorus, NMH transformed the crowd from shell-shocked, middle-aged nerds into a hopping mess.

Jumbled, brash and intimate, the group of transient musicians have clearly lost little of their charm in these 15-plus years. They smiled at their band leader sang along just for the joy of it and bounced around to accordion, horns, keys, guitars, banjo, and the distinctive middle of the band’s unkempt and fascinating sound — the singing saw. Played by Julian Koster, the rack of saws got its own round of cheers as the stage crew brought it out before the show. The saw made its first appearance on “Holland, 1945,” warbling in harmony with the Bonham thrash of the (unfortunately too-thunderous) drums and lyrical horn parts, shining as a reminder of NMH’s bizarre genius.

The Denver music scene lovingly takes some ownership of Neutral Milk Hotel, given that much of its music was recorded here. But to call Monday’s show a homecoming would be disingenuous. Calling it a glimpse into a brief and important moment of music history would be more accurate. Yes, Denver is where the band recorded much of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” which Koster pointed out mid-set. After a haunting “Two-Headed Boy” Koster said, “That song and this song were recorded about two miles from here.” The group then halted for Mangum to strum the opening chords of the title track from 1998 masterpiece.

But the world owns this music. Monday night’s show may have been a bit sloppy, given the constantly shifting tempos, and it may have come a few years too late for some of the band’s fans. But it also proved how enduring both Mangum’s performance prowess and songwriting has been. Variables aside, Monday night’s show simply felt like home.

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Reverb Managing Editor Matt Miller has a really common name so please use these links to find his Twitter account and Google + page. Or just send him an email to mrmiller@denverpost.com.

John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and critic for The Denver Post. Follow him @johnwenzel.