For a few seconds after Jeff Mangum walked out of the wings at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Monday night, there was only one prevailing collective thought. “Holy shit, he’s real,” said almost everybody to themselves. For a certain fraction of the sold-out crowd, that moment could have begun and ended the show. We were, after all, paying to see the most mythical figure in music since, I don’t know—Syd Barrett?
Mangum’s story is so compelling, and his In the Aeroplane Over the Sea filled with such brilliance, that when he disappeared it truly felt like a betrayal. How could he give the world this work of beauty and then retreat? What if he never wrote another song again, ever? Just where is he, anyway?
So in the short time it took Mangum to walk to his chair at the center of the stage, pick up a guitar and start strumming “Two Headed Boy, Pt. II,” the theater was already fully satisfied: There he is, hallelujah. Naturally, it just got better from there. No longtime Neutral Milk Hotel fan could have possibly left the Fox Theater disappointed. Mangum’s voice, penetrating as ever, filled the large theater like xenon, and I was relieved to find that it hasn’t changed one iota in the last 13 years. Still a reedy, forceful instrument unto itself, and still capable of hitting high notes, like the climaxes on “Oh Comely.”
I was also worried that the crowd would be so overcome they’d sing along to every word, and even though it happened, it wasn’t irritating. Mangum himself encouraged it, especially on the iconic “King of Carrot Flowers” and encore “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” He spoke little between songs, and what he said was muttered and hard to hear. It was really, really fantastic to hear Mangum introduce “True Love Will Find You In the End,” by Daniel Johnston, and I heard that the next night, during Tuesday’s show, he dedicated a song to the Thinkin’ Fellers Union Local 282, which, wow.
People hung on his every word, of course, and being revered has its privileges. When, at the start of the set, Mangum asked someone to stop filming, they instantly complied. In fact, in my section of the theater, it seemed like everyone got the memo. Barely anyone had their phones up in the air. And other than singing along, no one made a sound while Mangum unfurled brilliant song after brilliant song: “Holland, 1945,” “Ghost” and “Two-Headed Boy,” which ended right on the beat with a familiar drum-and-tambourine cadence emanating from backstage, and guest horn players Scott Spillane, Laura Carter and Andrew Reiger waltzed out to a perfect reprise arrangement of “The Fool.” The place went nuts.
At the end of the night, when Mangum walked off the stage after his encores, after the house lights came up and music started playing over the P.A., I saw something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in all the shows I’ve seen. The wildly cheering audience would simply not give up. They kept clapping. They kept screaming. It got louder, and louder. This went on for a long time. Come back, Jeff Mangum, come back, the roar said. Don’t go away again. Come back, come back. Louder, and louder, and louder.
And then the lights went back down.
Mangum came out one last time, and played “Engine,” a b-side. A thrilling end to a special evening.
1. Somewhere I still have emails between Mac and Laura and myself about publishing for “Two-Headed Boy.” (It was 2003, and we wanted to release a cover of it.) And in one email Laura says “Is this something we should get in touch with Jeff about?” and I was like NO WAY HE EXISTS.
2. No new original songs were played. Mangum’s been honest about his chances of writing a new record: “Sometimes I kind of doubt it,” he’s said. Without new material, it’s questionable how long he can stay satisfied playing the same old songs, and based on his demeanor I get the impression these shows he’s playing might be rare.
3. We were talking on the way back to the car about Aeroplane and its place. “It’s like the Blonde on Blonde of our day or something,” I theorized, but Hoyt one-upped me: “No, no. Forever Changes. It has horns.”
4. The show helped heal over a decade of regret: I actually had the chance to buy tickets to see Neutral Milk Hotel at the Bottom of the Hill in 1998. I hated the Jesus Christ line. So I didn’t.
5. Here’s the setlist:
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
True Love Will Find You in the End
Song Against Sex
Ferris Wheel on Fire
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Tags: 2012, Fox Theater, Jeff Mangum, Live Review, neutral milk hotel, Oakland, Photos, Review, Setlist