Our generation has grown up with some certainties about the bands we’ll never see. No matter what, we’ll never see the Beatles live, and there’s nothing we can do about Nirvana; if we didn’t make it already, we’ve missed our chance. Until recently, that list of impossible things included Jeff Mangum, indie rock hero and lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel, who legendarily disappeared from the public eye over 10 years ago, leaving his records to circulate in the ether, quietly gathering an ever-larger following.
On a Tuesday in February (or, last night), the impossible became reality at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theater for those fans lucky enough to score tickets to the sold-out show. The tension in the room was palpable: Could this show—this previously impossible thing— could it really be happening?
To thunderous applause, Mangum took a seat on a chair surrounded by a small forest of guitars and launched right into “Oh Comely”. Several people laughed as he started, not mocking but merely incredulous: Jeff Mangum playing “Oh Comely”, right there. His voice was as only his can be: atonal, droning, and deeply focused, starting with sharp angles and opening up like a flower near the sun, hitting a friendly warmth by “Engine”. The incredible vocal slides that are his trademark seemed to require no extra effort; Mangum simply opened his mouth farther to release them, letting out only as much sound as he could part with at a time.
Everyone knew every song, nodding and sometimes squealing involuntarily in recognition as the familiar chords spilled forth, and Mangum finally severed the tension after “A Baby For Pree”, saying, “You guys don’t have to be so quiet!” People started to ask him questions, echoing through the auditorium: “How you doing?” “Does the dream girl exist?” (To that, he replied cheerfully, “Yeah… but it’s sort of my own trip.”) Finally, someone cried earnestly, “Thank you for coming!” and the whole room burst into prolonged applause. It was more than we’d dared to hope for, this night.
The tracks poured out, each more memorable than the last, every song an ardent fan could wish for: “Holland 1945”, “Ghost”, “Song Against Sex”, both parts of “Two-Headed Boy”. Mangum switched guitars frequently, with some lending the crunchier, demo-like sound of a B-side and some recreating the album arrangements note-for-note. Every so often, familiar faces – like former Neutral Milk Hotel members Scott Spillane and Laura Carter – slipped on stage to flesh out familiar riffs with backing horns and strings. Yet through all this, Mangum’s voice was the constant, unchanged by time, hitting all the spots, holding all the notes for their same impossible distances. He let it out, let it fill the room with surprising power, and it felt more authentic sometimes to close your eyes, to hear the sound disconnected from its owner, just as you had for as long as you could remember.
But then Jeff Mangum was still playing, still here, so you opened them again, and you were watching when he asked everyone to sing along on “Two-Headed Boy”. “I want to hear you fucking loud this time!” he said with sincerity, but the audience was careful still, singing with the kind of gravitas normally reserved for candlelight hymns on Christmas Eve, no one wanting to break the spell.
The standing ovation that drew the encore came with reckless abandon, no one totally sure what would happen; Mangum returned, shaking his head and smiling, and burned through an enthusiastic “Gardenhead” (complete with achingly long holds) and then “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”, people singing almost involuntarily, the last song you would’ve wished to hear, and as he left the stage that time, everything felt right. Seeing Jeff Mangum live was authentic, raw, powerful. In short, it was everything we wouldn’t even have dared to imagine.
King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1-3
A Baby For Pree
Song Against Sex
Two-Headed Boy Pt 2
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea