Having never heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect for their act at the Ottawa Folk Festival. But I quickly learned that seemingly disparate elements can work in an incredibly harmonious way with this band.
The show started with lead singer Jeff Mangum standing alone onstage, acoustic guitar in hand. He looked — as someone standing behind me so astutely observed — like a hermit who hadn’t left his cave in a while, and his soft singing voice and gentle guitar strumming certainly mirrored this reclusive appearance. However, as the show went on and the energy picked up full force, Mangum steadily poured his soul into every lyric he sang.
The other band members, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes and Julian Koster, were no less giving in their own performances. Throughout the show, it was clear how this group is made up of artists who all have a unique style (from the sartorial to their onstage presence) that would not be expected to work as a cohesive unit. Yet Neutral Milk Hotel definitely embraces each members’ personal brand of eccentricity and delivers a show that is a unique combination of talents and energy.
The band also demonstrated its musical diversity as several members alternated playing instruments such as the French horn, the trombone, the trumpet, the violin, some accordions in varying sizes, as well as the banjo that was played with a violin bow and a musical saw, just to name a few. Each addition was an unexpected treat that symbolizes this band’s tendency to bring together components that wouldn’t be expected to work, but that most certainly do. The folk-sounding songs were also at times infused with some harder sounds that reflected the bite in Mangum’s words. In “The King of Carrot Flowers,” Mangum sings “I love you Jesus Christ” to the accompaniment of distorted guitars and trumpets that seem to have their own agenda.
Conversely, songs such as “Oh Comely” primarily feature the singer with his guitar, as he delivers lines such as “Your father made foetuses with flesh licking ladies”. Regardless of each song’s particular style, they all deliver the same emotional weight which took the audience by storm on Saturday night.
So, despite the bitter winds of early September, Hog’s Back Park was momentarily transformed into Neutral Milk Hotel’s musical playground, with the audience fully on-board.