The anticipation was palpable before Jeff Mangum took the stage at the Moore Theatre Monday night for the first of two Seattle shows. How could it not have been, considering the scarcity of a Mangum live performance over the past decade and the hallowed nature of Neutral Milk Hotel’s two-album output?
And while the reception alternated between hushed reverence and thunderous adulation, Mangum proved himself to be less of a musical messiah and more of a damn good performer, motoring through 15 Neutral Milk Hotel songs in just over an hour in a disarming, delightful set.
After encouraging the deferential audience to talk back to him, Mangum was greeted with shouts of “Where have you been?” and “Are you OK?” Mangum’s quizzical response: “Do I not look OK? You can’t just say that and shut the fuck up. Just a general bad vibe?” He may be reclusive, but there was no pretension about himself or his music to be seen.
Nearly all of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was represented, save for “Communist Daughter” and “Untitled Track,” supplemented by a handful of cuts from On Avery Island and one of the many unreleased tracks recently unearthed, “Little Birds.” Longtime live favorite “Engine” was accompanied by Magnum’s revelation that he’d written the song “right down the street from here” when he lived in Seattle.
Sitting down next to a rack of acoustic guitars, Mangum played the first half of the show solo, offering up stripped down but largely faithful renditions of the studio originals. With the songs presented here in acoustic form, one certainly missed touches like the gloriously fuzzed-out guitars on “Holland, 1945,” but it allowed for Mangum’s distinctive, forceful vocals to come to the forefront and assert a sway unheard in the albums. He held those unwavering, drawn-out notes longer, and that little break you can hear in the high note of “Oh Comely” was unleashed into a wounded howl live.
The transfixing longing of “Oh Comely” brought a backing brass section to the stage, and horns, clarinet, accordion and cello all made appearances through the rest of the set, played by a group that included Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter and The Gerbils’ and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Scott Spillane.
For some in the audience, it was clear seeing Mangum live was akin to a religious experience — and in many ways, it’s not hard to see where they’re coming from. The raw emotional edge of In The Aeroplane Over the Sea hasn’t dulled with age, and Magnum still seems very connected to the songs. But even if you’re not a member of the Church of Mangum, his live performance is undeniably a terrific musical experience.
“Two Headed Boy Part 2”
“Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone”
“The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1”
The King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3”
“Two Headed Boy” / “The Fool”
“Song Against Sex”
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”