Jeff Mangum's fans called out to him during Monday night's concert at the Athenaeum Theater. Understandably elated to see Mangum after his 14-year disappearing act, fans shouted out questions between songs. Most of them were frightfully trivial, but one received a poignant answer.
"How do you feel about reincarnation?" someone asked.
"Well, I'm doing it right now," Mangum said.
Back in 1998, Mangum found himself knighted, canonized, deified. "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," the surreal second album from his folk-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, quickly surpassed its critical acclaim to become a holy relic -- and that was before Mangum finished the tour (including a stop at Chicago's late Lounge Ax), folded his tent and retreated not only from the business but from sight altogether. Before long, he'd become the J.D. Salinger of indie rock.
But in recent years, when no one was looking, Mangum reappeared. Slowly, one acoustic performance at a time, he played some shows, then a few more, then a performance last fall in Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street protestors. Now he's on a full-fledged tour, playing the beloved old songs, leading up to next month's All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Britain curated by Mangum.
To say the anticipation was palpable before Monday's sold-out show (he plays Tuesday to another full house) would be a massive understatement. Mangum strode cautiously onto the sparsely appointed stage, in trademark plaid shirt with hair swooping out from under a cap, and sat in a chair surrounded by four guitars. He fixed the audience with a hard gaze and spent the next 70 minutes strumming those guitars hard.
"It's really good to come back and sing these songs as they were originally written," Mangum said, introducing "Gardenhead." The set list featured only songs from the two Neutral Milk Hotel albums, "Aeroplane" and "On Avery Island." No covers, no surprises, nothing fresh. During another breather, one fan asked the question on everyone's mind: "When's your next album? Anything new?"
Mangum just shrugged and said, "No."
While he was affable and even laughing as he chatted, Mangum was typically intense as he sang. His steely, voice-and-guitar presentation stripped bare these complex and sometimes convoluted songs of twisted yearnings and freak-show imagery. "Song Against Sex" showcased the ferocity of his strum as he spewed the verses. By "Oh Comely," his mean voice leapt above the guitar runs as his eyes bugged out, his mouth wide, his face skeletal -- like Loudon Wainwright III's evil, institutionalized twin.
Musically, he didn't seem to miss the band. Then again, he kept encouraging the crowd to join in, as if he felt a bit naked on his own. When they weren't staring in reverent silence, they obliged, shrouding him with singalongs through "Two-Headed Boy" and the final encore, the title track from "Aeroplane." Occasionally, Mangum was joined on stage by Andrew Rieger, Laura Carter and Scott Spillane -- Elephant 6 record label cohorts from Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power and Olivia Tremor Control -- who softened some edges with horns, woodwinds and percussion.
Those three opened the show with an unfortunate, clumsy, off-kilter series of originals and some curious covers (Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year" with bowed guitar almost redeemed them), but they joined Mangum to close his regular set in spectacular fashion with the Southern-fried, funereal instrumental, "The Fool."
Was he a fool for leaving? When another fan asked, "What have you been doing?" Mangum's response was reflexive.
"I've been with the love of my life," he said. "To me, that's enough."
Jeff Mangum's set list Monday night
"Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2"
"Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone"
"Song Against Sex"
"King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1"
"King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3"
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"