Most people even a little familiar with indie rock know the story of Jeff Mangum. As the man behind Neutral Milk Hotel, one of the ‘90s more brilliant and original bands, Mangum is beloved by many but known by few. That’s because they disbanded after releasing only two full-length albums, one of which was the critically adored In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and then he essentially retreated from the public eye. Notorious for being a recluse with a severe distaste for touring, apart from a few one-off solo appearances Mangum only recently reintroduced Neutral Milk Hotel to the world. His announcement of a rather extensive tour, playing dates everywhere from the massive stages of Coachella to small, dimly lit venues across the nation and a few across the pond took a lot of people (well, at least me) by surprise and had a lot of us jumping on tickets. On Tuesday night, he played his second show at Oakland’s Fox Theater (his third consecutive night in the Bay Area) and filled the towering concert hall to its apex with his powerful, stripped down songs and phenomenally preserved voice.
Though Mangum’s voice has always been incredibly distinctive—nasally, rich, and fluid—the music on the Neutral Milk Hotel albums is so robust with instrumentation and incredibly crafted arrangements that his voice is but one of many elements that make up the sound. So hearing these songs stripped down to their root, sans the theremin and horns and organ and accordion and drums that define the studio tracks, made for a very different, very poignant musical experience. His songs and lyrics have such depth to them, thematically and poetically, that his lone presence on the stage cast in a warm golden light was more than enough to make everyone in the room flush with satisfaction. The entirety of the audience was rapt and brimming with adulation for this guy most of us have wanted to see for so long, who’ve listened to his music endlessly, making a personal connection to his craft in the absence of the live experience. On a few tracks, some tasteful horns were brought in, the musicians standing alongside Mangum on stage in a simple sequence, buffing and projecting the tunes beyond the vocals and spare guitar. For music that’s so impactful, these threadbare renditions were still so rich and satisfying.
And it serves his music well, to hear it like this. Mangum did chat with us a little bit, his charming stage presence somewhat of a surprise to me since I expected so little (not a peep) in terms of banter. He was clearly on this night, and feeling the crowd, though he could have played with his back to us with a whisper or croak of a voice, and his set still would have translated to a powerful experience. You know there is a real artistic genius at play when the music just is, resonating all by itself, stripped of all theatrics and all expectations. Truly a bare and moving performance by one of our generation’s best.