Jeff Mangum | Tall Firs Sheldon Concert Hall, January 16, 2013
After a few years of performing solo acoustic shows around America and Europe, Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum finally made it to St. Louis. Tickets sold out in less than an hour, and for good reason: It's been a decade and a half since he last played in town. During that time, NMH's two full-length albums, 1996's On Avery Island and 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, have become of cherished classics. Mangum completely dropped out of the music scene for about a decade, which was enough time for a ravenous fanbase to form. Of the several hundred fans that packed the Sheldon, I'd estimate that at least 80 percent would have been too young to see NMH when that band was a going concern.
See also: -An Oral History of Neutral Milk Hotel in St. Louis -Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Ten Years After + St. Louis Live Recording -Jeff Mangum Plays Neutral Milk Hotel's "Engine" in Pittsburgh and Columbus
It's no surprise that people were a little excited. Waiting in the bar for the doors to open, I counted at least half a dozen people that seemed almost disbelieving that they were actually going to get to see Mangum play. I cannot remember the last time I noticed this level of buzz before a concert.
After a quiet, politely-received set from New York guitar duo Tall Firs, Mangum took the stage and grabbed one of his four acoustic guitars. Other than his grey-flecked, almost rabbinical beard, he looked basically like the same guy from the late '90s, complete with his standard brown thrift-store sweater and green hat. Opening with "Two-Headed Boy," he spend the next hour performing a selection of NMH songs. He played all but three songs from Aeroplane, a few from On Avery Island, and the single "Engine." "Oh Sister," a live favorite that never made it to vinyl until the 2011 box set, was an unexpected surprise.
For someone who saw Neutral Milk Hotel in the '90s, the acoustic format took some getting used to. Those shows were joyfully ramshackle affairs, with band members coming and going while Mangum flopped and jumped around the stage. For the first couple of songs tonight it was initially hard to reconcile those memories with the man sitting motionlessly on the chair. Nonetheless, Mangum's voice can still fill a room, and he could still hit the long notes on "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" and "Oh Comely."
Almost from the beginning, Mangum seemed to understand the crowd's expectations, and did his best to defuse them and bring things down to earth. His voice was a little ragged -- the effects of a chest cold -- and he continually apologized for it. From the second song, he invited audience members to sing along, which actually made for a nice shared communal experience. About halfway through the set, Mangum invited people to move up to the front, and dozens gathered behind, in front of, and even on the stage. He bantered easily with the surrounding crowd, politely fielding requests (but generally not playing them) and responding briefly but wittily to audience remarks.
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