Critically-acclaimed indie band Neutral Milk Hotel performed last Friday night in Mass MoCA’s theatre. The show was highly anticipated as part of the group’s self-described “last tour for the foreseeable future,” and many students from the College eagerly flocked to the museum to see the band.
At 8 p.m., Neutral Milk Hotel’s multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster appeared onstage, clad in what one student described as “the coolest hat I’ve ever seen,” to introduce the opener, The Dot Wiggin Band. The Dot Wiggin Band is the new project of Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin, whose old band, The Shaggs, recorded the cult classic album Philosophy of the World in 1969 and whom Frank Zappa allegedly called “better than the Beatles.” The Dot Wiggin Band immediately jumped into a punchy set that included such catchy songs as “Banana Bike” and “Speed Limit.” Their off-kilter rhythms and unique spin on a classic ’60s sound left the audience in a joyous frenzy.
Dot Wiggin’s poetic lyricism captured the aura of delight that much of the night had in store. They blistered through their set, as Dorothy Wiggin added commentary on the songs. They concluded with a bluesy jam featuring fiery organ solos. At the end of their set, the audience begged for more. One Jake Marrus ’18 standing behind me screamed, “We want Dot Wiggin!”
But it was time for the main act. After a brief intermission, famed Neutral Milk lead singer and songwriter Jeff Mangum came on to the stage, greeting the audience with a punctual “Hey” before launching into the acoustic “I Will Bury You In Time.” As he neared the end of his opener, he was joined onstage by the remaining members of his band – Koster, Scott Spillane and Jeremy Barnes. They ripped into the fan-favorite “Holland, 1945” as mosh pits formed in the crowd – an odd sight for a concert by a low-key indie band like Neutral Milk Hotel. Afterwards, the band broke into “The King of Carrot Flowers” which prompted a hearty sing-along from the crowd, though Mangum’s piercing voice was never overpowered or hard to hear.
Through it all, the other members of the band constantly traded in instruments, showing off their talent and adaptability. Koster sang and played bass, saw, accordion, synthesizers and a bell and even in one instance bowing a banjo. Spillane played a multitude of brass instruments and occasionally sported a guitar along with Mangum’s. Barnes occupied his usual place on the drums, save a few instances where he too took up the accordion to display his wide musical talent.
As the concert progressed, the band ripped through classics from their beloved album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998), such as the title track, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1,” and “The Fool.” The band also played some songs from its first album, drawing a sing-along from the crowd on the familiar “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” and “Song Against Sex.” On top of these album tracks, the band played the title track of its newest EP, Ferris Wheel on Fire, using layers of sound to build to a climax before cutting into an acoustic final verse, leaving the audience in a trance-like state. The band also played fan favorite “Ruby Bulbs/Snow Song,” a song that has gotten considerable live performances over the years, but has never been released on an album. The band concluded the set with a performance of the lengthy, mesmerizing “Oh Comely,” with which much of the audience sang along in awe.
After a quick break, the band returned for an encore, cutting through a new song before playing a trifecta of fan favorites, starting out with the joyous “Ghost” before flying into the bombastic “[untitled],” a song that featured an electronic bagpipe. After this the band departed the stage while Mangum played a rendition of the emotional “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” leaving the audience satisfied emotionally and musically. Mangum thanked the crowd and promptly left.
As people departed, there were many smiles and complimentary words about the performance. Immediately afterwards, I caught up with Ben Young ’18, who was nearly in tears. He told me that it was “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” I’m sure many who were in the audience would have agreed.