For the first time in more than a decade, indie-rock icon Jeff Mangum took the stage solo last night. At a benefit show at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, the frontman of the lo-fi indie-folk group Neutral Milk Hotel performed a short but sweet 25-minute, five-song set, focusing on songs from Neutral Milk’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the hugely influential 1998 album that’s gone on to inspire everyone from Grizzly Bear to the Decemberists to Arcade Fire.
Mangum — who came out of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective, which also cultivated bands like Olivia Tremor Control and the Apples in Stereo in the late Nineties — has largely shunned the public over the years, but he was encouraged to perform last night to help raise money for punk musician Chris Knox, a friend of Mangum’s who has recently suffered a series of strokes. Yo La Tengo, the Clean, Sharon Van Etten, Portastatic and TV On the Radio’s Kyp Malone — along with comedians Rachel Feinstein and John Mulaney — rounded out the event’s eclectic bill.
But fans clearly packed the room to get a glimpse of Mangum at work. Dressed in a newsboy cap and dark-plaid shirt, he strolled onstage carrying two acoustic guitars at 8:45 p.m. Fans who were milling about the lounge area quickly flooded the venue’s main space and remained reverently silent. Quietly acknowledging the crowd with a nod and a wave, Mangum sat down and eased into the epic, eight-minute baroque-folk number “Oh Comely” (watch a clip on YouTube). He was barely miked, but his high, bright howl and vigorous strumming could be easily heard through the room.
When he wrapped up the tune, the crowd’s response was deafening, like an indie-rock explosion of Bieber Fever. The rest of Mangum’s set was equally dazzling, including a sparer, more rapturous take on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” which the crowd turned into a chilling sing-along. After that song, Mangum left the stage but was encouraged to perform one encore (“Engine”) by his fans’ over-the-top enthusiasm. Mangum seemed visibly touched by the audience’s warmth and appreciation. When one attendee shouted, “We’ve missed you!” Mangum responded, “I’ve missed you too. Don’t think that I haven’t.”
“A Baby for Pree”
“Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”