There have been few cheers, if any, this loud for a couple of accordionists sauntering onto the stage. As singer Jeff Mangum trailed off the last few notes of opener “Two-Headed Boy” over his lone guitar, though, the crowd at the Orpheum Thursday night erupted at the site of them, along with a rag-tag horn section, climbing over amps toward the front. The ensuing instrumental, “The Fool,” played out like the world’s greatest Salvation Army Band processional.
Few albums have aged as finely as Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Its dense, DIY recording style was a kind of rite of passage for waves of fans who fell for Mangum’s blunt run-on sentences about death, love, disintegrating families, and immortality. Soon after its release, Mangum mostly dropped out of the public eye for nearly a decade. The album turned into sacred text. “God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life,” sang Mangum near its end, and having that recording to yourself was sort like feeling you were there, too.
Mangum triumphantly returned as a solo act a couple of years ago, but with the full band finally in tow, this tour was the true comeback. The effect was magical. The band plunged through nearly everything from “Aeroplane” as well as a good chunk of material (“Song Against Sex,” “A Baby for Pree”) from its first album and minor releases. French horns, toy saxophones, and singing saws calmly stepped in for lead melodies opposite Mangum’s powerful voice.
The sound sunk into the mud a few times and rhythms threatened to fly off the rails throughout the night, but holding on tight while the band kept it together might have just added to the experience. As songs coalesced on lyrical crests like “Dad would dream of all the different ways to die/ Each one a little more than he would dare to try,” the strange spiritual power of the band overwhelmed.
“This theater really is haunted with ghosts,” said saw/Moog/bass/banjo utility man Julian Koster between songs, after which he appealed to them: “We hope you like this, too.”
Elf Power opened the show with their tamer take on the approach, shimmering 12-string guitars and beer bottle slides underpinning their own hushed indie-rock.