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Review: Neutral Milk Hotel tranfixes Iowa City crowd

If there's a JD Salinger of indie rock, it's Jeff Mangum, the enigmatic frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel. After recording "In The Aeroplane Over the Sea," an album that influenced countless bands in the decade that followed, he largely shut himself away from the world.

A few years back he reemerged into the world, first performing as a solo act and eventually reuniting with his full band, Neutral Milk Hotel. 1,200 fans showed up to be transfixed by the band Monday at the Iowa Memorial Union Main Lounge in Iowa City.

Mangum emerged on stage looking very much the part of "troubled loner," with a scraggly beard and cap hiding most of his face. He started off the show alone, performing "I Will Bury You In Time," a song that had largely been heard by fans on the "Live at Jittery Joes" album before finally getting a studio recording in 2011.

As the song finished, Mangum was joined on stage by the rest of the band, including horn player Scott Spillane and multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster for "Holland, 1945." After years of hearing it solo, the full band returned the song to its punkish roots, the kind of song that should get a crowd jumping around the room. Instead the sold-out crowd just stood, staring in disbelief that this was happening.

"Thank you. Hello, my friends," Mangum told the crowd as the song wrapped up, before explaining that he had the flu and encouraged fans to sing along. "I'm singing the best I can."

But if Mangum's voice had lost anything, it was all in his head. On the song that followed, "King of Carrot Flowers," his voice sounded as powerful as it does on any recording. It effortlessly overpowered the many instruments to be perfectly clear on every song.

While it was tempting to keep your eyes on Mangum, Koster provided for an interesting show in his own right, spinning around while playing bass, breaking out a bow to frantically play banjo and adding an ethereal quality to songs like "In The Aeroplane Over the Sea" with his singing saw.

After that hit, which came just 20 minutes into the set, Mangum broke out "Two Headed Boy Part 1" as a solo song before being joined by the band at the very end. The show continued into "Naoimi" and then "Ferris Wheel On Fire."

On "Rubby Bulbs" Neutral Milk Hotel turned the stage into a cacophony of sound, the kind of thing that never would have worked with Mangum playing solo. It was big and loud, then there was a sudden transition to "Snow Song Part 1," with the instrumentation and crowd getting so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Alone again, Mangum closed out the main set with "Oh Comely," leaving the stage to thunderous applause that didn't diminish during the time offstage.

After returning, Mangum told the crowd "Thanks for singing along with me," before breaking into a newer song "Little Birds" before cranking up the energy with "Ghost." At this point Mangum decided to lead by example, jumping around crazily with his band while the crowd joined in.

The song concluded with a massive roar from the stage as everyone departed by Mangum. Alone again, he began singing the more intimate "Two Headed Boy Part 2," which ends with the line "Don't hate her when she gets up to leave."

And with that, he was gone.