While much of the talk during their return to the circuit has been about their 15-year hiatus, for Australia, it’s been a much longer wait to see Neutral Milk Hotel. The iconic band has never before toured the country, and after the cancellation of Harvest Festival where they were scheduled to play, many feared the chance might have been lost.

But their Melbourne show may well have provided the silver lining in the demise of the festival, giving Australians the opportunity to see the Louisiana band in the perfect setting with a full 90-minute plus set. The Forum Theatre provided the perfect backdrop, delivering a brilliant atmosphere and enhancing what would be a truly special show.

The bill also featured two other would-be Harvest acts: folk rock troubadour M. Ward and 90s alt-rock four-piece Superchunk.

On the back of releasing his sixth studio album, A Wasteland Companion, M. Ward began the night with his trademark drawl and effortless vocals. The Portland-based singer-songwriter was joined by his three-piece band, creating a full and layered sound while still allowing his brilliant vocals to take centre stage.

With a set that included an even mix of material from his latest release and old fan favourites like ‘Vincent O’Brien’, ‘Outta My Head’, and ‘Chinese Translation’, as well as a cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘To Go Home’, M Ward proved himself far too accomplished a performer for the 8pm timeslot usually reserved for an ‘opening act’.

Ward showed his full talents on guitar, creating intricate and complex lines and remarked that “this is probably the greatest Australian tour we’ve ever done, we’re playing with two of our favourite bands”, echoing a sentiment shared by the audience.

The venue was plastered with signs requesting no photography of any sort, even phones, during the headliner’s set. These ideals seemed to carry across to Ward’s performance, with the polished musician saying, “that’s probably enough photographs”.

“It’s been about 17 years since we’ve been back here. It’s good to see you all,” exclaimed Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan. From the outset, it was obvious just how happy the American four-piece was. They were full of energy, delivering a high velocity, polished, and thoroughly enjoyable set that was lapped up by the already packed Melbourne crowd.

McCaughan is a natural showman and was aptly complemented by the other three. The set included song’s from Superchunk’s tenth studio release, I Hate Music, and judging by their performance, the title couldn’t be further from the truth.

McCaughan reflected the anti-photography sentiments, saying that he was “so happy to not see a single cell phone pointed at the stage”.

After releasing their seminal and most popular record In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum quickly grew disenchanted with the touring life and the publicity that the band attracted. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Mangum withdrew from the public eye and hardly appeared at all until a few years ago.

When they arrived, it was as subdued and subtle as the band obviously wished it to be, with the five members striding on stage surrounded by an array of eclectic and intriguing instruments (including three saws).

The band may still be slightly uncomfortable with the spotlight, but as soon as the instantly recognisable chords of ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1’ began, they were in their element.

Mangum wore a cap hung low while a huge flowing beard hid most of the rest of his face. He stood to the far right of the stage, a position not usually reserved for the primary singer, guitarist, and songwriter of a band, but one clearly reflecting Mangum’s wish to not be the centre of attention.

As soon as the opening vocals “When you were young, you were the king of carrot flowers” were heard, it was clear that Mangum would be demanding attention across the night. He was restrained and quiet between songs, but when playing, Mangum was impassioned, enthusiastic, and completely lost in his own world.

The screams of “I love you Jesus Christ” in ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2’ may well be as close to a religious experience as most at the sold-out crowd will get, but it’s more of a celebration of the power of the band’s music and its uniting qualities.

‘Pt. 3’ of the same song saw Julian Koster playing a banjo with a violin bow, just one example of Neutral Milk Hotel’s unique and unrivaled approach to songwriting and performing. Koster would later play the saw on several songs, creating a wholly unique sound to fill the cavernous theatre.

The fuzz-filled, catchy ‘Holland, 1945’  touched on intensely dark subject matters, as does nearly all of Neutral Milk Hotel’s music. Mangum was placed quite literally in the spotlight for ‘Two-Headed Boy’, playing the song solo but producing a full sound for just one extremely talented person.

‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ was truly spellbinding. Relevant and touching lyrics built to an explosion of brass and saw-playing, and lines such as “For now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see” created a hushed reverence inside the theatre.

‘Oh Comely’ again saw Mangum alone on stage, creating the most intense and dark moment of the night before being joined by the rest of the band for an epic and heavy conclusion.

‘Snow Song, Pt. 1’ bought the main set to a finish. The encore included the haunting ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2’ and an upbeat instrumental before, much to the audience’s anguish, Mangum announced the last song of the night, ‘Engine’.

The song from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea proved to be a perfectly apt conclusion to what was a captivating show.

Aside from a few rebellious souls, the performance was free from the usual iPhones wielded high in the air that now commonly plague gigs. This served to make an even more special and unique show that was enjoyed in the moment for those lucky enough to be there – rather than on YouTube the next day.

Melbourne had to wait a long, long time to see Neutral Milk Hotel, but the ultimate performance served to fully justify and exemplify the overwhelming hype and popularity that has remained during Neutral Milk Hotel’s 15 year absence.


The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1

The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 & Pt. 3

Holland, 1945

A Baby For Pree

Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone

Everything Is

Two-Headed Boy

The Fool

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Ferris Wheel On Fire


Oh Comely

Song Against Sex

Ruby Bulbs

Snow Song, Pt. 1


[Unitled Instrumental]

Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2


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