Without a word, Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Magnum walked onto the stage of Asbury Park's gilded, enveloping Paramount Theatre last night and eased into "Oh Comely," staring straight ahead, singing "soft silly music is meaningful, magical." In the recorded version of that song, at the end, you can hear someone far off exclaim "holy shit!" as if startled – which is just about right.
Over an hour and 15 minutes, Mangum – performing as part of the three-day ATP I'll Be Your Mirror Festival – was focused and relaxed, sitting on a chair mid-stage. He was flanked by four guitars, bathed in autumn orange lighting and looking especially solitary in the theatre's expanse. Where Bon Iver has traded up in touring accompaniment, Mangum is more at home alone – except, of course, for the rapt, capacity crowd of around 1500.
"EVERYONE LOVES YOU!"
"I'll have to disagree with you, my friend."
Mangum's noticeable lack of between-song charisma ("I don't have anything to say, so I'll just keep singing") seems to be a very real part of his personality, not a cash-grab or a reticence on his part to return to his music; since his Netural Milk Hotel Days, he had only played in public a handful of times until last December, when he performed a set in a loft apartment in Brooklyn. In an elevator later in the evening (yes, this is ATP, where you can run into Jeff Magnum in an elevator) he was quiet, bashful and humble, thanking myself and a friend through the closing double-doors.
His voice is an off-kilter instrument, always flat-lunged and stark, distinctly Celtic in his pinched high register. It's an Irish caterwaul made for the woods, put into motion by starkly late-American poetry. (See video below.) The Paramount's acoustics are tailored for a performance like this, where each breath and rattling string can ricochet and bloom, the space opening and closing in parallel.
It's an odd thing, to play folk music in the new century, unaccompanied and adored, to play it to a crowd so enamored and hanging on each strum of the right hand and glint of the eye, singing out songs roundaboutly romantic, in a theatre near the sea.
"Two Headed Boy Pt. 2"
"In An Aeroplane Over the Sea"
"Song Against Sex"
"Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone"
"True Love Will Find You In the End" (Daniel Johnston Cover)
"Two Headed Boy"
"A Baby for Pree"
"The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1" and "Pt. 2 & 3"