It was as if Neutral Milk Hotel didn’t really exist. It was as if the band’s disappearance in 1999—the year after it released its critically acclaimed sophomore record In The Aeroplane Over the Sea—meant the band had actually died. Neutral Milk Hotel became a myth, a legend—the indie band to start all indie bands; the one to inspire a generation of names like Arcade Fire, Beirut and the Decemberists to break out the accordions, horns and folk.
But singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum was just hiding, as he does. Meanwhile, Mangum’s pool of fans grew into legions of worshipers. And when he announced a reunion in 2013, the world changed—for these fans, at least. The cult of Neutral Milk Hotel could finally see its idol.
That feeling of religious reverence permeated the Crest Theatre last Wednesday night. Neutral Milk Hotel announced its spring 2015 leg would be its “last tour for the foreseeable future.” The Sacramento show—the band’s second-to-last-stop, potentially for forever—sold out months in advance.
Robert Schneider and John Ferguson of the Apples in Stereo— a fellow late ’90s and Elephant Six Collective band—opened the evening with a sweet acoustic set. The Apples in Stereo has been on its own hiatus for a few years, with the death of a member and singer-songwriter Schneider going off to graduate school. “Now my fingers are soft like a little tiny baby’s fingers,” Schneider told the crowd. The pair filled the theater with banter, silliness, awkward missteps and bromance, along with minimalist versions of their psychedelic pop.
Then, the moment everyone had been waiting for: Mangum walked onstage. The J.D. Salinger comparisons are abundant and appropriate—Mangum is notoriously reclusive. He refuses interviews, doesn’t allow photos at concerts and abandoned music because of a nervous breakdown. At the Crest, Mangum hid behind a bushy beard and cap. Then, he hid behind his songs: beautiful, dark, strange, cathartic.