The Return of Jeff Mangum (5/7)

    On the day tickets for the Chris Knox benefit concert went on sale, I sat down at my computer a full hour before the scheduled release time and readied my index finger for the web page refreshing of a lifetime. Tickets would go on sale at high noon, and in doing so set off a wild feeding frenzy of fans hoping to witness Jeff Mangum’s first official show in nearly a decade. As the lo-fi fuzz of On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea passed through my speakers, I fell into a meditative-like state attempting to channel the long lost spirits of Neutral Milk Hotel.

    – 12:00 pm: Release time. Commence clicking.

    – 12:02 pm: Server error, too many attempted visits. Damn you Brooklyn hipsters!

    – 12:05 pm: Ticket site remains unreachable. All is lost. Preparing to go into cardiac arrest.

    – 12:06 pm:  What’s this? Site up and running! Click click click…

    – 12:07 pm: Success!

    Fast-forward to the scene last night outside of New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, and the talk was all Mangum. Fans waited in anxious excitement as they speculated over whether or not the former Neutral Milk Hotel frontman would play Aeroplane material, new material, or run back into hiding without playing material at all. Camp Mangum received an extra confidence boost when a venue worker reported the reclusive singer/songwriter would indeed be playing and had even sound checked. For many in the crowd, a lifetime dream was about to come true.

    Although a dozen other artists took part in the benefit show, it became clear once inside just how many people came to see Mangum and Mangum alone. Every few seconds another person would stand on their tippy toes and scan the venue, hoping that Jeff Mangum might be casually ambling about the room full of raving fans. When it was announced that the living legend would be playing next, the venue exploded with a heretofore-unseen energy.


    Mangum entered from the left to a standing ovation (I know, we were already standing, but we certainly would have made the gesture had we been seated). As he stooped to set up his equipment, fans craned their necks and fidgeted every which way trying to soak up as much of the beloved songwriter as they could.  When he was finally ready to begin, Mangum asked the crowd for some water and within seconds had more water than he could handle. This was a gracious crowd, and they were willing to do whatever it took to ensure their hero was satisfied.

    After taking his seat, Mangum closed his eyes and took one calming deep breath. He was visibly nervous, and as he began the Aeroplane epic “Oh Comely”, he drew out the intro chords, perhaps attempting to buy himself more time. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that this man’s voice has not changed a bit over time. If anything, the power and oddly beautiful timbre of his voice has only gotten better with age. But even as he went further into “Oh Comely”, his nerves did not seem to subside. At one point Mangum became choked up and couldn’t sing. He soldiered on however, and delivered a captivating performance. Even though both his guitar and vocals were unmic’d, his voice seized the room of over 700 people. Some cried, others mouthed the words, and still others stood in complete shock. Truly, the times when Mangum sang those eerie horn parts were absolutely bone chilling.

    He wrapped up “Oh Comely” to a wild roar of applause and thanked the crowd. One fan shouted “We’ve missed you!” to which Mangum quietly replied “ Oh, it’s not like I haven’t missed you guys too. I have.” At this moment my heart broke. Here, I was witnessing firsthand the pain that I had so often read about, the pain that had kept this man from the music community for so long. In his response, one could tell that Mangum genuinely had missed his fans, but at the same time could do nothing about it. I didn’t have long to dwell on Mangum’s words though, for he had already begun the only On Avery Island song of the set, “A Baby for Pree”.


    Easily the shortest song of the set, Mangum made good use of his time. “A Baby for Pree” served as a sort of transitional stage between the ballsy eight minute opener “Oh Comely” and second half of the set. During the song, Mangum became better acquainted with the audience, opening his eyes more frequently to glance hesitantly around the room. For years I had watched YouTube videos of Neutral Milk Hotel and noticed that Jeff Mangum has some crazy fucking eyes. Witnessing those eyes in person felt like watching a possessed man. Often times while swaying back in forth in his seat, Mangum would roll his eyes to the back of his head and flutter his eyelids. These moments were brief though, with the musician quickly shutting his eyes as soon as he opened them.

    When the cheers for “A Baby for Pree” subsided, cheers for “ Two-Headed Boy Part 2” began. Along with the cheers, a new feeling swept across the crowd. For the previous two songs, it was almost as if the room had been holding its collective breath, waiting to make sure that this was all actually happening. When “Two Headed Boy Part 2” arrived, the initial shock and awe had nearly disappeared, allowing fans to really take in the weight of Mangum’s playing. For the first time, it felt like Mangum was playing to us, rather than us just watching the performance take place. The climax (“And when we break…”) provided the first opportunity for a quiet sing along, and afterward the crowd let Mangum finish the song on his own in that slow decent to silence.

    He announced that the next song would be his last and gently segued into the crowd favorite “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. Any nerves Mangum had at the beginning of the set seemed to have passed, and he seemed completely at ease with the crowd.  He even smiled a few times after failing to get the attention of the sound tech to turn up his monitor. Words cannot describe what it was like watching this genius play one of the most beautiful songs of all time. But to give you an idea, there were at least four people in my immediate vicinity who were shaking with tears, and I do not think they were alone. Mangum ended to the loudest roar of the night and, after signing an autograph for one lucky person, took his guitar and walked off stage. But the applause did not let up, and went strong for over a minute until he returned with a humble wave. It was a true fucking encore. He didn’t have to come back. Everyone in the room could have left completely satisfied, but at the coaxing of hearty applause, Jeff Mangum decided to treat us to one more gem.


    “Do you guys know ‘Engine’?” he asked. “Well feel free to sing along if you know the words.” With that, the whole venue broke out into the relatively unknown B-side to “Holland 1945”. Midway through the song Mangum spoke to the crowd again saying, “It sounds beautiful. Keep it up!” But before we knew it, the song was over and Mangum was back on his way out the door, this time for good. With him, at least half the venue exited as well.

    No one knows whether or not Jeff Mangum’s return will last past this one show, but I must say that by the end of his performance he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself. If he does choose to come back, rest assured that the magic he once displayed has been lost during his absence. And all those who attended his performance can attest to that.