"So, are you guys going to sing?" Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum was a few songs into his October 29th solo performance at midtown Manhattan's Town Hall, and he'd already asked the crowd once before to sing along. Now he repeated his request and launched into "Ghost," a typically emotional selection from Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. "C'mon!" Mangum exhorted mid-tune, and a few more voices joined in. Moments later, before the song's final, wordless verse: "Now, fucking sing!"
After "Ghost," Mangum explained why it was so important for him that we sing along: "It just makes everything so much more human, you know? I mean, I used to do this for my friends . . ." He trailed off and gestured appreciatively out at the crowd, then asked for the house lights to be raised so he could see everyone.
These days, when Mangum just finished headlining a small festival, traveling up and down the East Coast on a brief tour and even making a surprise appearance at Occupy Wall Street (all to rave reviews), it's funny to think how unlikely all of this would have seemed even a year or two ago. The same ardent fans packed into Town Hall on a snowy Saturday night – the lucky few who scored tickets in the instants before they sold out back in February – had waited nearly a decade for Mangum to start performing in public again after he entered an intensely private phase following In the Aeroplane's cult success. When he reappeared in May 2010 at a benefit for an ailing friend, it was with the explicit caveat that his five-song set there was "not the start of a comeback." Then it turned out that it was. Few dared to expect it, but Jeff Mangum is back, and the music world is immeasurably richer for it.
He got a standing ovation just after 9 p.m. as he walked on to the Town Hall stage, bare except for four acoustic guitars on stands. Mumbling a brief greeting, Mangum sat and opened immediately with "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" – the last song on In the Aeroplane, whose keening melody echoed in fans' ears all through the hiatus years. It sounded just as powerful now. He stared up at the balcony as he went through the well-remembered verses, wearing a grave, perhaps slightly nervous expression, but allowed himself a quick smile at the applause that followed that first song.
Mangum kept smiling as the night continued, a little wider each time, and especially when the audience obeyed his frequent pleas for them to sing along. Squeals of delight went up from the room as they heard the initial chords of nearly every song – highlights from In the Aeroplane and his 1996 debut, On Avery Island, plus a Roky Erickson cover and a fan-favorite B side. These were raw, ragged versions of the familiar tunes, with none of the albums' ramshackle psychedelic orchestration: just one guy on stage, punching out fast chords on acoustic guitars, tapping his foot and singing out in that singular voice. Suffice to say that Mangum, who recently turned 41, hasn't lost any of his vocal power in the intervening years. By the time his hour-long set ended with a cathartic "Holland, 1945," most everyone was joining in.
After a two-song encore with the house lights back up again, Mangum flashed a huge grin and walked off – stopping for a split-second as he left to look back at an entire auditorium that had risen to its feet. The crowd went on cheering for a few minutes more, as if they could will him to return and keep playing for another hour. He didn't. But after a year in which Mangum has proved that he is every bit the uniquely compelling performer he was in the Nineties, it's starting to seem wildly, wonderfully reasonable to hope that he'll be back before long.
"Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two"
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
"Song Against Sex"
"Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone"
"I Love the Living You" (Roky Erickson cover)
"A Baby for Pree"
"The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One"
"The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three"
"Two-Headed Boy Pt. One"