Concert review

Neutral Milk Hotel worth the wait for fans at the Uptown

Updated: 2014-02-16T06:14:51Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

Few bands epitomize the indie-rock aesthetic more than Neutral Milk Hotel.

The group was founded 25 years ago by lead singer and songwriter Jeff Mangum, who also cofounded the Elephant 6 Recording Company, a collective of indie bands.

Neutral Milk Hotel released only two albums, the latter of which was the instantly fabled "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," issued in 1998. That same year, the band went on a hiatus, emgerging finally last year. In its absence, its stature only grew.

Thursday night, Neutral Milk Hotel sold out the Uptown Theater, drawing a crowd of more than 2,000 fans, most of whom were seeing the band for the first time. Mangum and his original mates (plus a horn section) gave them an evening that was worth the long wait.

Nearly 16 years after their release, the songs on "Aeroplane" sound as vibrant and turbulent as ever. Mangum writes about heavyweight issues -- life, death, love, loss, sex -- in evocative, absract prose that often come off as colorful but derailed trains of thought, adding to his mystique.

In 2012, Mangum went on a solo tour that stopped at Lawrence las January. That evening, he cast his songs solely as vocals over strummed acoustic guitar. Thursday, his band rendered them in something much heavier and revelrous, mustering a sound that was often as shambolic as it was ecstatic: a barrage of guitars, bass, banjo, accordion, concertina, saw, keyboards and percussion, often embellished with horns. For much of the night, they sounded as shaggy as Mangum's woolly beard, which made his music's homespun art-rock leanings more endearing.

He opened with "Two Headed Boy Part 1," which he sang solo, hammering away at his acoustic guitar, and was then joined by the rest of the band. Depending on a song's arrangement, attendance on stage varied throughout the set, which lasted nearly 90 minutes. At times he was backed by the entire sextet, others, like during "Oh Comely," he was solo again.

Mangum was the lone singer on stage, but the crowd sang along with him several times, most demonstratively (and gleefully) during "Song Against Sex," which mustered the most mayhem all night, on stage and in the crowd. During several songs, the band's influence upon other bands was starkly apparent, especially Arcade Fire and the Decembrists The setlist comprised nearly all of "Aeroplane," plus tracks from its predecessor, "On Avery Island," and the EP that preceded that, "Everything Is." They closed with "Engine," an "Aeroplane" outtake that appears on odds-and-sods EP "Ferris Wheel on Fire," released in December 2011.

It all meshed together nicely into a portrait of a band that sounded worthy of its stature, even its mythology. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, but in this case, music diminished time and absence and made the past feel revived and less remote.

Setlist

Two Headed Boy Part 1; The Fool; Holland 1945; Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone; A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You; Naomi; In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; Song Against Sex; Everything Is; Ferris Wheel on Fire; The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1; The King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3; Ghost; (Untitled); Snow Song Part 1; Oh Comely. Encore: Two Headed Boy Part 2; Engine.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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