When Jeff Mangum (pictured) finished "Oh, Comely," the first song he played last night at the 2640 performance space on St. Paul's St., he sat back in his chair.
"That took my breath away—that's never happened before," he told the crowd of enraptured hipsters, who silently hung on his every word. "It's not a bad thing," he said as if to relieve them. "I'm happy to be here with you guys and everything."
The audience, which had been waiting more than 10 years for the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman to play live again (and waited hours for tickets back in June), slowly realized that Mangum was not the eccentric, potentially supernatural being they had come to see him as, but just a guy, a guy who wrote some really phenomenal songs.
Also, a guy with that incredible, piercing voice. Over a 90-minute set culled from NMH's two albums, On Avery Island (1996) and the oft-revered In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998), along with a cover of Roky Erikson's "I Love the Living You," Mangum sent chills down the spines of the hundreds of devotees in attendance with his delivery, which manages to be both barreling and delicate. Through the first couple songs, the audience stood in rapt attention as Mangum played solo, just the sound of that amazing voice and his acoustic guitar filling the venue, a run-down church. Then, he invited the audience to sing along—and later demanded it. "It sounds so beautiful when everybody sings it," he said. The assembled, who knew every blip of these songs by heart, complied, belting out every vocal tic and even vocalizing the brass parts and digital effects of some songs.
Early in the set, while Mangum tuned his guitar, he casually said, "You guys can ask questions if you want." The crowd enjoyed a hearty laugh. After 10 years of silence from the man, during which his myth and mystery grew, he was now asking them throw out questions, like he was a speaker in some elementary school career day.
Not surprisingly, the first questions were about his return: Was he writing songs? Would he record a new album? "I've been writing songs on and off," he reported. "I'll make a new album if my heart tells me too, but not for any other reason."
Why did he decide to tour again after so long? "I played the Chris Knox benefit last year," he said, referring to an event in New York last year to raise money for the punk auteur and stroke victim. "I saw how it made people happy and that made me happy."
When an audience member asked if Mangum had ever played the Neutral Milk Hotel video game—a program created by hardcore fans in which Mangum goes back in time and kills Hitler (In the Aeroplane... is partially about Anne Frank)—he was nonplussed. "You gotta be fucking kidding me," he said.
And, even after Mangum closed with a raucous encore of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" and "Engine" that saw the crowd reach ecstatic heights of glee, the idea of a Neutral Milk Hotel video game did, indeed, sound insane. He's just a guy, a really talented guy.