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Jeff Mangum at Athenaeum Theatre on Feb. 7, 2012

written by: on February 9, 2012

When Jeff Mangum comes out of hiding it’s for a damn good reason.

Having recently self-released a vinyl box set containing all of Neutral Milk Hotel’s recorded output, including some never commercially released tracks, it seemed an opportune time for Mangum to also make his return to a live setting. Rightfully, it is the last thing any Neutral Milk Hotel fan expected to happen. But, surprisingly, it did.

On the second night of his two-day stint at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre, the largely reclusive Mangum proved that the songs he crafted over a decade ago have not lost an iota of power. In fact, they’ve only increased in stature as Mangum’s public persona has declined.

After settling into his chair, choosing the first of four guitars surrounding him, Mangum launched directly into “Oh Comely,” from 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The crowd—which had been cheering wildly at the sheer sight of Mangum—hushed itself as soon as he struck the first chords of this behemoth.

When Mangum finished “Oh Comely” the crowd let out an approving roar. Yet, audience members once again piped down as soon as Mangum started the first part in the “King of Carrot Flowers” trilogy. It was an interesting sight, as the crowd was rapt with silence—partly out of respect, and partially because it didn’t want to miss a single word coming from Mangum’s mouth.

It wasn’t until Mangum busted into the slightly more upbeat “Holland, 1945” that the crowd could no longer stifle its enthusiasm. Audience members sang along loud enough for Mangum himself to hear, and he let out a quick bit of encouragement: “I can’t hear you.”

From this moment forward the set lost the air of vigilance that had been hanging it. The silent awe was replaced with well-timed sing-alongs, as well as lively banter between Mangum and various audience members. Whenever someone would scream out a question, or even just yell his name, he would acknowledge them courteously. He hardly even batted an eye when an overenthusiastic fan yelled out, “Does your dream girl exist?” Even as the crowd groaned at the forced reference, Mangum still found it in him to respond—albeit in the coyest manner possible,

As the set wore on it became clear that Mangum’s lengthy absence had not harmed his voice, or his ability to perform. Soaring atop the adoring crowd, Mangum sounded as crisp as he’s ever had. There was nary a second where he couldn’t hold the attention of every person in the sold out theater by merely holding out vocal lines for emphasis, as he notably did at the start of “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3.”

His guitar playing—which was never all that intricate to begin with—seemed even more weathered live than it did on recording. Where In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was gloriously huge and On Avery Island was awash in reverb, the stripped-down setting allowed the simplistic beauty of Mangum’s songs to permeate deeply into his audience.

Although the majority of the set saw Mangum alone with his arsenal of guitars, he was occasionally joined on stage by members of the famous Elephant 6 collective to help fill in some small sonic gaps. The most notable contributors being Scott Spillane and Laura Carter, who had both contributed various instruments on Aeroplane’s recording. When Spillane and Carter first stepped onto stage, instruments in hand, the crowd cheered emphatically, knowing that such integral horn arrangements would be brought to life in this live setting.

Mangum’s live appearances were surely treats for his fans, but it seemed as if he was getting just as much enjoyment out of playing these songs as the crowd was hearing them.

In a rather off-the-cuff moment, Mangum spoke about how pleased he was that his records resonated with so many people, and that if you’d have asked him five years ago he would have never envisioned himself doing this. In that moment it seemed as if he was lowering his guard, showing that beyond the persona that had been built up, he was still the same guy who played these songs to much smaller crowds 12 years ago.

After each song concluded Mangum thanked the crowd, and often times members of the audience would yell it right back at him. Before launching into “Two-Headed Boy” he suggested that if fans really wanted to thank him they should sing with him. Mangum doesn’t want his songs to be put on the pedestal that everyone else places them on, instead he wants his fans to interact with them just like they would any other artist.

When he reemerged for his encore, he sat back down, and the two tracks he played flew by. After finishing “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” the crowd cheered emphatically as Mangum stood in the middle of the stage and waved thankfully to his supporters. It seemed as if, at least for a moment, all those years of reverence that Mangum’s work had been receiving across the music world became concrete. A soft smile came across his face, and he walked off stage, leaving the audience to continue screaming for more.

It’s rare that a man sitting in a chair with an acoustic guitar can keep an audience as engaged as Jeff Mangum did at the Athenaeum, but when it comes to Mangum, it seems like defying expectations is kind of his thing.

Jeff Mangum at Athenaeum Theatre on Feb. 7, 2012 Setlist:

  1. “Oh Comely”
  2. “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1″
  3. “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3″
  4. “A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You”
  5. “Engine”
  6. “Holland, 1945″
  7. “Ghost”
  8. “Song Against Sex”
  9. “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2″
  10. “Naomi”
  11. “April 8th”
  12. “Two-Headed Boy”
  13. “The Fool”

Encore:

  1. “Gardenhead/Love Me Alone”
  2. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”