Only a band as notoriously reclusive as Neutral Milk Hotel could make a high desert ghost town located two hours outside Los Angeles seem like a logical venue for a concert. After all, catching Neutral Milk Hotel live is about as likely as catching a wink from Vigo the Carpathian. And yet, their passionate fans wouldn’t blink an eye at the prospect of traveling 100+ miles in 100°+ heat simply for the possibility. With their May 30th performance at the Pioneertown watering hole known as Pappy & Harriet’s, the band was offering their Southern California fans less a typical show than an experience to be earned and cherished.
In 2013, to the elation of college radio listeners everywhere, frontman Jeff Mangum’s widely influential indie-folk braintrust announced they would embark on a reunion tour, picking up where they left off after 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. But a mere two years later, a second (not so surprising) announcement followed: summer of 2015 would mark Neutral Milk Hotel’s “last tour for the foreseeable future.” And so Music Editor Matt and I hit the road for Pioneertown, and what would likely be our first and only chance to see this revered group of musicians play together.
To call Pioneertown, California a “ghost town” is actually a far-off misnomer. Though the preserved collection of Wild West storefronts and hitching posts saw more gun-fights than the OK Corral and Deadwood combined, no cowboys ever met their maker here. Pioneertown is, in fact, a historic Hollywood set, constructed in 1946 (not 1846) to serve as a backdrop for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others of their horse-riding, hat-waving ilk. Located 25 miles outside the scenic resort town of Palm Springs, Pioneertown is a cute, little day trip for tourists. There is a motel, a used book shop, an event space, pottery and souvenir shops, and, of course, a film production office, but most of the buildings are simply manicured, forced-perspective facades, decorated with “wanted” posters and bails of hay.
The heart and soul of Pioneertown is now Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneer Palace. Built originally as a cantina set, then converted into an outlaw biker bar in ’72, the establishment evolved into it’s current identity ten years later. Soon becoming a celebrated, hidden jewel known for it’s live music, Pappy & Harriet’s has been written up in the New York Times and featured by Anthony Bourdain. The sprawling canteen opens to an outdoor venue, separated from the parking lot by only a low wall. Just beyond the stage, the area’s eponymous Joshua Tree yuccas stand like scattered sentries, silhouetted by the setting sun.
By 9:30, the sky was pitch black, and psychedelic-folk band The Minders (also with Elephant 6) had warmed the sold out crowd and vacated the stage. Mangum dutifully took the stage alone, dressed in a army cap and a beard worthy of Duck Dynasty (not even press photos were allowed for his performance, so you’ll have to take our word here), and launched into “I Will Bury You In Time“, from 2011’s Ferris Wheel on Fire 10″ compilation. Before he hit the last note, the rest of the band –including Aeroplane contributors Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes– had taken the stage, seamlessly rolling the tune into the roaring “Holland, 1945”. One song to the next bled into one another, much as they do on the records. Trumpeter Spillane belted the lyrics to himself, in between his sections. Multi-instrumentalist Koster jumped and spun in circles while he played (well, except while he was playing the saw; that would have been dangerous). Many in the crowd seemed to be having a spiritual experience there under the stars of the warm desert night.
As the set drew to a close, Mangum eschewed the somewhat tedious traditional encore, saying, “We are not going to go away and come back. We are just going to keep playing for you,” and announced his final two songs as “Little Birds” and “Ghost” (which really became “Ghost”, “[untitled]”, and “Two-Headed Boy, Part II”, mirroring the tracklist on the record –and ensuring no one would be standing around afterward still demanding, “Encore!”). The polite and exhilarated crowd soon dispersed from the desert outpost, a row of taillights snaking through the boulders and back towards Palm Springs. Neutral Milk Hotel, meanwhile, enter their final week of touring.
The event was organized by FYF Presents, an spectacular series of high-profile shows in and around Los Angeles, leading up to August 22nd and 23rd’s FYF Fest. Check out the full line-up of FYF Presents events HERE.
The complete setlist from the May 30 show:
- “I Will Bury You in Time”
- “Holland, 1945”
- “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One”
- “The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three”
- “A Baby for Pree / Glow into You”
- “Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone”
- “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”
- “Two-Headed Boy”
- “Song Against Sex”
- “Rub(b)y Bulbs”
- “Snow Song, Part One”
- “Oh Comely”
- “Little Birds” [encore]
- “Ghost” [encore]
- [untitled] [encore]
- “Two-Headed Boy, Part Two” [encore]