Better than…standing in 105 degree weather.
After a ten-year absence from the road, songwriter-guitarist Jeff Mangum grew into a mythologized character that tens of thousands of kids pinned their hopes and theories upon. His two '90s era albums as Neutral Milk Hotel inspired a devoted following that was enough to drive Mangum into a world of his own amusement.
Relegated to rumors, Mangum grew to become an American Syd Barrett — brilliant but delicate, another songwriter who just wasn't meant for these times. But for the last six months Mangum has returned to the stage, playing the same songs that almost crushed him in the late 1990s. Last night before a full-house, Mangum presented a smiling set of hits with the occasional request for the audience to join him and sing “fucking loud!”
The evening did not get off to a smooth start. A half an hour late, the makeshift opener — which consisted of Elephant 6 veterans Scott Spillane (flugelhorn, voice, guitar), Andrew Rieger(guitar and voice) and Laura Carter(clarinet, trumpet, and an electric saxophone (?)) — worked their way through a set of Elf Power and Gerbils tunes, facing a half-full house due to a drastically ill-prepared will call.
The band played a subdued set laying the ground work for Mangum, with Spillane playing a rather lonesome guitar behind his unexpectedly high vocal register. A version of Randy Newman's “In Germany Before the War” was a nice touch.
After the crowd filled out the seats and the bar line thinned out, Mangum strode to the stage with a rack of acoustic guitars tuned to his specificities. The adoration was evident long before the lights dimmed and he welcomed the crowd with open arms. He launched into a solo set that included Daniel Johnston's “True Love Will Find You In the End.” Then, after twenty minutes, he left the stage, confusing many in the crowd.
He quickly returned, surprisingly jovial, having sorted out his sound problems and bantered with members of the crowd. In the end, they got more than they could have ever expected from a former “recluse,” with nearly every shouted request fulfilled.
“Naomi” had Mangum paired with cellist Heather McIntosh, while during “King of Carrot Flowers,” he had the crowd praising Jesus Christ in all their sing-along splendor with Spillane and Carter returning throughout the set to provide Salvation Army band brass behind Mangum's strong wail. He introduced the lilting “Little Birds” as “doing him in a little” before reassuring the audience that he was “okay.”
After another brief departure, Mangum returned for a three song encore. His waltzing closer, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” had the couples in the crowd embracing and swaying while Spillane's trumpet fluttered over them.
After an hour and a quarter long set, the most satisfying part of the evening was that Mangum's voice still sounds as strong as ever. After such a long absence it is amazing to witness an artist embrace his past as passionately as he did. His emphatic strumming and clenched eyes appear as genuine as they sounded so many years ago.
Now it's time for him to unleash some new material.
Personal Bias: Mangum is notoriously wary of photography at his performances and kudos to security for quelling what could have been a sea of cellphones. But when security told a patron to sit down during the encore, they kind of crossed the line.
The Crowd: People unafraid of the occasional clarinet solo.
Random Notebook Dump: Kim Cooper's written history of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was rightly an indispensible textbook for the evening's crowd. I saw at least three copies last night.