Neutral Milk Hotel played their second and final Chicago show of their reunion tour at the Riviera Theatre on Friday night, reinvigorating their beloved 90's lo-fi recordings for a receptive sold-out audience.
The Athens, Ga.-based band is on their first tour since going on hiatus in 1999. Critically adored for their 1998 release In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, which has grown immensely in popularity since its release, the band played to a rapt audience of college students, young adults and even a fair amount of older fans. The diversity in the band’s fan base represented the group’s enduring appeal, with many in attendance too young to have seen the band in their heyday.
One highlight of the show was lead singer Jeff Mangum’s behavior. As the group’s primary songwriter and leader, he has struggled with the amount of attention the band received for In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, largely removing himself from public attention until a series of solo shows beginning in 2011.
However, at Friday’s show, Mangum, sporting a bushy beard that obscured most of his face, engaged with both his band mates and the audience, even bantering with those in the crowd on several occasions. When one audience member yelled out “I love you!” Mangum deadpanned, “Did you just say fuck you?” eliciting a wave of laughter from the crowd.
“He was resigned within himself, but he still wasn’t cut off from the audience,” said Weinberg freshman Nick Henke. “It really felt like he was playing the show for the audience.”
Before the show began, fans were reminded to not take photographs of the event using their phones or cameras. The audience largely respected this unusual request, which Mangum described as an effort to “keep everyone in the moment,” giving the band a more attentive audience.
Before Neutral Milk Hotel began their set, fellow Elephant 6 Collective band Elf Power played a rapid-fire forty-minute set. Elephant 6, which began in the early 90s as a project including Mangum and several other performers, is known for spawning the careers of several notable psychedelic and lo-fi bands, including Of Montreal and The Olivia Tremor Control.
The group began the show with a three songs off of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, played at a greater volume and speed than on the record. While the crowd only swayed gently through most of the approximately 80-minute set, crowd favorites like “Holland, 1945” and “Two-Headed Boy” inspired spirited sing-alongs within the audience.
For some fans, the event was years in the making, a chance to see an act that for years gave no indication that they would never tour.
“Getting to see [Neutral Milk Hotel] is something I didn’t ever expect to do,” Weinberg freshman Evan Lee said. “The band seemed to be having fun, and the energy was great."
For most in attendance, Friday night’s performance could have been their one and only opportunity to see the band as a whole. While the group has a bevy of dates stretching into the summer, including a string of music festivals, it remains unclear if the reunion tour will lead anywhere further.