Photographs by Sarah Rix.
On the third and final day at TURF, the most entertaining band was waiting to approach the main stage. Suddenly, a few members would be on stage. Then more came out. Then more. From out of nowhere, Eugene Hütz springs onto the stage from the back, and it’s Gogol Bordello time. Gogol Bordello are so textured with the respective cultures of each band member, yet on stage they’re all traveling renegades. Members would leave the stage and come back depending on what song was being performed, but it was all Hütz’s three ringed circus. He lurched across the stage like moss on a rock; red wine bottle in hand with the wine spilling all over the place. The musicians were on fire, the music was unstoppable, and the politics were splashing all over the audience. It was a fun set with a cast of characters all collected into one setting with the same goal in mind: To start a riot.
Over on the south stage, Bidiniband, led by Canadian musician Dave Bidini, came out to a modestly filled hill of people. With a set full of mellow and charming tunes, Bidiniband seemed to kind of mosey along the afternoon. While everything sounded lovely and no one was standing stiffly, Bidiniband didn’t contain the same sense of entitlement that most bands this weekend. The music was mixed well and everything went together, but some musicians can’t just replicate the sounds of their studio work live. Bidini did talk with the audience here and there, as he introduced his band members from time to time as well. Everyone grooved in their own little spots on the stage as they were clearly into the music they were making. They did try to have some sort of stage presence; they could have just tried harder. We were watching a professional band play a festival, but it felt like a basement group performing at this year’s annual ribfest.
Jeff Tweedy walked onto the stage with thunderous applause. There’s no secret why: He’s a part of Wilco. He sang with a serious scowl on his face but not a single sense of aging within his voice, which was as clear as it is on album. His concerned look seemed to be explained after three songs had gone by, as he put on a Texan accent and told the photographers to “Go, on! Gitt!”. As these “shutterbugs”, as he called them, were leaving, he seemed more relieved (that is until half-jokingly telling someone in the front to put his camera away or else he’d “kick [it] into the crowd”). He even restarted a song, but did so quickly and with a smile. Once Tweedy wasn’t feeling pressured by the media, he seemed to have a lot more fun and his songs picked up immensely. Like Bidiniband, Tweedy’s music sounded almost exactly as it does on album. However, Tweedy had a much stronger connection with the audience, even during his shooing away of the photographers.
The weekend was about to finally wrap up when deep within the TURF woods, there was a sighting. It was rarer than Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster; I’m sure more people have claimed to have spotted those than Neutral Milk Hotel. After over a decade apart and just under a year back together, Neutral Milk Hotel came to the stage somehow sneakily. Jeff Mangum, now donning lengthy hair and a massive beard, walked onto the stage without applause for a short bit. Once people registered just who was standing before them, all of TURF went ballistic. The rest of the band, consisting of Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes and touring member Jeremy Thal (along with other session musicians who would come and go) slunk onto the stage at the perfect times. This included times when songs would keep going, where a large ensemble was required after Mangum’s work on a song alone. Mangum stood still with his guitar in hand while the rest of the band painted large musical landscapes with instruments ranging from the typical (bass, drums, etc) and a brass section (consisting of Spillane and Thal) to Koster’s wacky workshop of tools (a banjo played by a bow, a bell being smacked against a pot’s lid, a toy accordion and, his specialty: Rusty musical saws also played by bow).
The five members felt like a line up of characters that somehow met up (think Breakfast Club). Mangum was the folk musician from the dirty south. Spillane was the music teacher showing his vast knowledge of brass instruments. Barnes, with his fashionable mustache, was the 70’s fan channeling that era’s heaviest (Bonham and Moon).Koster, with his woolen hat, was the mad scientist. Then we have Thal who just seemed happy as ever to be there and willing to do whatever was asked of him on command. This cast of five juggled instruments, all reacted differently to the music being played and all were fully invested in their set. Spillane was singing along to every single song just for his own sake, Koster hopped around in the circle like an excited dog, and Mangum took a breather after every song to thank the audience as he was quite nonplussed.
With almost every song off of their magnum opus (In The Aeroplane Over The Sea) featured, Neutral Milk Hotel tossed in a few treats for us as well (including one of the only songs to come out after said album: Little Birds). Despite the occasional feedback, the soundscapes, otherwise, were gorgeous. The ambience created by brass instruments and saws leaking into the fuzz created by guitars and accordions worked so well. They made an extremely, musically complicated album (Aeroplane) sound as though it could have been recorded all in one take by them. Every time Mangum would take a sip of water, people cheered. It was one of the few times he let himself go, as he joked “I could do this all night”. He then said “That’s not what you want”. Near the beginning of the set, he politely asked everyone to put their cameras and phones away and just experience Neutral Milk Hotel live. That’s because there’s something magical at work here, and their set, easily being the best overall at TURF, closed off an incredible weekend with a miracle. Just like Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, they have vanished and their set remains all but an urban legend.