Neutral Milk Hotel in Miami: A Review With Live Concert Drawings

Editor's Note: Photography isn’t allowed at Neutral Milk Hotel shows. So we at New Times recruited writer David Rolland and Miami’s most skilled live concert drawer, Brian Butler, to capture the idiosyncratic magic of Jeff Mangum and company last night.

Neutral Milk Hotel
With Mind Brains
Olympia Theater at Gusman Center, Miami
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Better Than: Mere words can describe.

With the Unabomber safely locked away at a Supermax prison, the 1990s' other great recluse, singer Jeff Mangum, and his band Neutral Milk Hotel made their Miami debut last night. Don’t let the goofy name fool you, Neutral Milk Hotel is as earnest as any musical project that’s ever existed. This outfit is a gorgeously intricate jumble of singer-songwriter individualism and orchestral symphonics with the tiniest hint of rock ’n' roll.

In a 90-minute set as beautiful and ornate as the Olympia Theater at Gusman Center stage upon which they played, Neutral Milk Hotel made believers out of the unacquainted under a ceiling painted as the night sky. Mangum walked on promptly at 9:30 with his acoustic guitar and funeral-appropriate singing voice. He barely said a word to the crowd besides the occasional “Thank you,” as he bowed and put both hands over his heart. He wore a baseball cap, a full beard, and a blue shirt with his sleeves rolled up so he could strum his guitar with intense dignity and yelp out metaphors as the four men and two women accompanists entered and exited the stage as if this was a three-act drama.

And it was dramatic. The instruments these guys brought out and had mastered were ridiculous. I’ve seen accordions. I’ve seen violins, banjos, and trumpets, played to great effect. I even believe I have seen other acts play the spooky musical saw. But who in the world of popular music tours with a French horn? Jeremy Barnes, he of the mighty mustache, drummed with a furious rhythm. Scott Spillane is a large man with a white Amish beard that almost looks fake, but whose enthusiasm looked realer than real as he mouthed all of Mangum’s lyrics while waiting for his cue to blow one of his many horns. Then there was Julian Koster who played the aforementioned musical saw, bowed banjo, and bass guitar; he was also the unofficial mouthpiece of the organization. Jeff Mangum lived up to his ultra-shy reputation, so when a fan screamed, “We love you Jeff!” with a “woo-hoo!” for emphasis, there was an awkward silence until Koster stepped to the mic and said, “It’s so much fun to be here in such a beautiful place.” Later, he moved the sensitivity notch to eleven when he dedicated the final song, “Engine,” to his two grandmothers.

For a concert with assigned seating, the crowd had a lot of energy, applauding loudly for the opening songs, singing along to the words of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and even daring to stand for the four-song encore. This was a very un-Miami crowd, with more flannels being worn than flip-flops. How un-Miami was it? It was so un-Miami that I actually heard a heated debate outside the theater before the show about hockey. It was so un-Miami that the request before the band took the stage that there be no recording or photographs was actually respected. If the music wasn’t heavenly enough, the fact that you were in a room full of people for an entire hour and a half with not one person taking a selfie might make you think you left this planet. Opener Mind Brains, an arty five-piece from Athens, Georgia, also gave the room an otherworldly feel. Using a harpsichord and what appeared to be a theremin, the group would be the perfect soundtrack for any haunted house. The music was odd enough to make you wonder what the ushers guiding latecomers to their seats thought of this racket.

But the final hour and a half of the ushers' night was the easiest money they ever made. Nobody got up from their seat, not to go to the bathroom, nor to get another drink — they were checked in to the Neutral Milk Hotel.

Critic’s Notebook

Neutral Milk Hotel’s Setlist:
-"I Will Bury You in Time"
-"Holland 1945"
-"The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One"
-"The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three"
-"Ferris Wheel on Fire"
-"A Baby for Pree”
-"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
-"Two-Headed Boy"
-"Song Against Sex"
-"Ruby Bulbs"
-“Snow Song Pt. One”
-"Oh Comely"

-"Little Birds"
-"Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two"
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland