Jeff Mangum | Tall Firs Sheldon Concert Hall, January 16, 2013
After a few years of performing solo acoustic shows around America and Europe, Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum finally made it to St. Louis. Tickets sold out in less than an hour, and for good reason: It's been a decade and a half since he last played in town. During that time, NMH's two full-length albums, 1996's On Avery Island and 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, have become of cherished classics. Mangum completely dropped out of the music scene for about a decade, which was enough time for a ravenous fanbase to form. Of the several hundred fans that packed the Sheldon, I'd estimate that at least 80 percent would have been too young to see NMH when that band was a going concern.
See also: -An Oral History of Neutral Milk Hotel in St. Louis -Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Ten Years After + St. Louis Live Recording -Jeff Mangum Plays Neutral Milk Hotel's "Engine" in Pittsburgh and Columbus
It's no surprise that people were a little excited. Waiting in the bar for the doors to open, I counted at least half a dozen people that seemed almost disbelieving that they were actually going to get to see Mangum play. I cannot remember the last time I noticed this level of buzz before a concert.
After a quiet, politely-received set from New York guitar duo Tall Firs, Mangum took the stage and grabbed one of his four acoustic guitars. Other than his grey-flecked, almost rabbinical beard, he looked basically like the same guy from the late '90s, complete with his standard brown thrift-store sweater and green hat. Opening with "Two-Headed Boy," he spend the next hour performing a selection of NMH songs. He played all but three songs from Aeroplane, a few from On Avery Island, and the single "Engine." "Oh Sister," a live favorite that never made it to vinyl until the 2011 box set, was an unexpected surprise.
For someone who saw Neutral Milk Hotel in the '90s, the acoustic format took some getting used to. Those shows were joyfully ramshackle affairs, with band members coming and going while Mangum flopped and jumped around the stage. For the first couple of songs tonight it was initially hard to reconcile those memories with the man sitting motionlessly on the chair. Nonetheless, Mangum's voice can still fill a room, and he could still hit the long notes on "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" and "Oh Comely."
Almost from the beginning, Mangum seemed to understand the crowd's expectations, and did his best to defuse them and bring things down to earth. His voice was a little ragged -- the effects of a chest cold -- and he continually apologized for it. From the second song, he invited audience members to sing along, which actually made for a nice shared communal experience. About halfway through the set, Mangum invited people to move up to the front, and dozens gathered behind, in front of, and even on the stage. He bantered easily with the surrounding crowd, politely fielding requests (but generally not playing them) and responding briefly but wittily to audience remarks.
I knew that people would want to make some sort of connection with Mangum; for years, after all, it seemed that he'd never return. What was unexpected was the amount of warmth he gave back. At one point, he confessed that he never thought people would take the NMH records to heart, and declared himself "moved."
So: A satisfying performance by one of rock's most reticent icons, and a rare opportunity to hear Neutral Milk Hotel songs performed live. It's great to have Jeff Mangum back and performing, still, one wonders if he has been working on any new music behind the scenes. He's made Gamalan field recordings, drummed for the Circulatory System and DJ'd on WFMU, however, his last new song, "Little Birds," dates back to 1998. The pressure of following up a statement as succinct and effective as Aeroplane must be enormous, but I can't be alone in wanting to hear what he's up to now, in whatever form it takes. So here's hoping that Mangum stays around this time, but let's also hope that he feels comfortable enough to share whatever music (if any) he's been creating.
Critic's Notebook: - Crowdwise, things got a little weird at the end. After "Ghost," Mangum left the stage, presumably to be called back for an encore. The woman standing next to me grabbed the setlist, which is standard acceptable concert behavior. What is not acceptable, however, is that fact that two dudes stole Mangum's throat spray (which he'd been using every other song) and water. Really? He just performed for you with a cold, even inviting you up onto the stage, and you repay him by stealing his water while demanding he play more? OK, so he was given them back before the encore of "In The Aeroplane Over the Sea," but he shouldn't have had to ask. It was also a little strange to see Mangum mobbed at the set's end like he was Morrissey, but he'd clearly faced that situation before and knew how to deftly make his way backstage. - This is not the first time Mangum has battled illness in St. Louis. At NMH's Side Door show in 1997, he and horn player Scott Spillane both came down with the flu. Here's a clip of "Engine" (audio only) from that show:
Setlist: Two-Headed Boy King of Carrot Flowers Part 1 King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 & 3 Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone Engine Holland, 1945 Oh Comely Oh Sister Song Against Sex Two-Headed Boy Part 2 Naomi Ghost
encore: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea