Neutral Milk Hotel Bring Warmth to Chicago’s Riviera Theater

On Friday, February 7, Chicagoans braved the cold weather to stand in line for Neutral Milk Hotel’s second night at the Riviera Theater. The line wrapped around the block, despite the dropping temperatures and high wind chill. Friends were taking turns running to the Starbucks across the street to pick up drinks to warm their hands. Inside the Starbucks they were playing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on an endless loop.

Neutral Milk Hotel at Riviera Theater

There was a palpable excitement in the air as everyone patiently waited for the doors to open. The couple behind me reminisced about when they first heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998. The two young men in front of me recalled how they had only been listening to Neutral Milk Hotel for about a year or so, after reading an interview where one of their favorite artists referenced the band as a major influence. In getting to know other concertgoers, I was able to fully grasp the impact this group has had on the music industry. Despite being gone for years on end, the band is still gathering new fans and influencing current artists’ albums.

When the show finally began, fellow Elephant 6 Recording Company artist, Elf Power, took the stage. The band played through its set-list and received a positively warm reception, even taking a moment to point out members of the audience whom they remembered seeing the night before. I made a mental note to download the band’s discography later since I hadn’t taken the time to familiarize myself with their work pre-show.

After they wrapped, the buzz of the venue began to grow as set ups were made for NMH. Instruments were brought out and there was no set-design except for a solitary light-up sheep propped up on an amp.

Jeff Mangum entered the stage first and was unrecognizable with a full beard and cap obscuring much of his face–understandably so seeing as the last images of the band derive from the 90s.

The show opened with “The King of Carrot Flowers Parts One, Two & Three” and immediately moved into to “Holland 1945.” Mangum took a moment to thank the audience and asked everyone to put their phones away. “I want everybody to be present,” he stated. Standing right up against the gate, I looked around and saw phones heading back into pockets and purses, a solid statement of respect.

Mangum moved through the rest of the set list, his vocals still earnest and cracking just at the appropriate moments. The set switched between solo acoustic arrangements to full band performances, with the other members wandering on and off stage when needed. Scott Spillane spearheaded the horns, Jeremy Barnes was on drums and accordion, and the bass, banjo and even a musical saw were played brilliantly by Julian Koster. They never mixed their own vocals with Mangum’s, but rather sang the words away from the microphone, just as earnestly as members of the crowd.

After each song was finished and met with applause, thanks were given from both Mangum and Koster. Mangum put his hand over his heart in thanks after each ovation, touched that crowds were still singing his words back to him after all these years.

However, the most beautiful moments of the night came from the songs without words, in the form of “The Fool” and “Untitled.” The ominous undertones of “The Fool” filled the air and reverberated off the walls as if one were at a funeral procession and not a concert.  “Untitled” was played during the encore, just as loud and raucous as the studio version. The entire venue shook with the jumps of the crowd.

The main set ended with “Snow Song Pt. 1,” and as they left stage they were met with some of the loudest cheers and whistles I’ve witnessed at any event. Those in the balcony seating stood up, giving a standing ovation, the entire audience begging for an encore.

We were graced with an encore of “Ghost,” “Untitled,” “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” and “Engine” before Neutral Milk Hotel ended the show for good. Before I turned to exit the venue with a friend, I heard someone next to me say, “Was that real? Did that actually just happen?”

I felt myself drifting into the same disconnected-from-reality state as I made my way through the crowd, reveling in the fact that I had just watched Neutral Milk Hotel, who have become legends in their own right. It was an experience that I thought I’d never have.

Set list:

  1. The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One

  2. The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three

  3. Holland, 1945

  4. A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You

  5. Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone

  6. Everything Is

  7. Two-Headed Boy

  8. The Fool

  9. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

  10. Naomi

  11. Ferris Wheel on Fire

  12. Oh Comely

  13. Song Against Sex

  14. Ruby Bulbs

  15. Snow Song Pt. 1


  1. Ghost

  2. [untitled]

  3. Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two

  4. Engine

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Article by Raefa Alsalah

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