February 18, 2014
Mangum enters the stage alone to thunderous applause as he slips into a soft and excellently executed rendition of “Two-Headed Boy.” Jeff Mangum has cleared some of his stage freight, showing in his attempts at stage presence with the occasional hop, dance and wiggle. He looked the audience in the eye with a look that said more than “Thank You.”
After Two-Headed Boy, the rest of the members on the original recordings enter the stage to play “The Fool,” which was enthusiastically followed Mangum inviting the audience to stand, leading in to “Holland, 1945.”
Between King of Carrot Flowers and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, a man to my left yells song suggestions as his wife takes pictures with the flash camera he momentarily put down. A woman on the other side of the theater yelled a suggestion in an abnormally long pause, while the band members look back and forth to each other and over to Mangum who is apparently unphased, but taking his time for everyone to settle down.
Another heckler picked up, and holding beer can, decided to shout “Pantera” and other unintelligible comments repeatedly through multiple song transitions.
Eventually the man next to me took his camera back from his wife and started taking more flash photos throughout the show. But then he was tired of the other man’s rudeness, and shouted “Dallas is sorry!” Mangum didn’t hear and bends down to talk to the standing audience without his mic.
Bemused, he stands back up. “What are you sorry for? There’s nothing to be sorry for. I thought we were all having fun here.”
Next came “Oh Comely”, followed by “Song Against Sex.”
Throughout “Ruby Bulbs”, Mangum looked extremely pale and nervous, on the verge of vomiting but recovered as he hit the perfectly timed entrance to “Snow Song, Part One”- the last song before the encore.
The encore was comprised of “Ghost,” “[untitled]” and “Two-Headed Boy, Part Two”- culminating in the Spillane announcing that the concert was coming to an end and it would be their final song, an anthem called “Engine.”
The music never actually stopped between songs, probably to calm Mangum’s nerves, especially after over a decade of group silence. There was no transition you could tell that he was more comfortable because all the sudden he smiles and did a head nod. Was that because other people came on to stage?
A couple of times when it looked like he was getting nervous, he would turn around and Julian or the sound guy backstage would nod and give reassuring looks. Occasionally they would make hand gestures, cueing Mangum to do things like turn back around to face the audience, or to apparently remind what song came next. At one point when the drummer left the stage for a Mangum solo performance, he gave Jeff a reassuring hug.
The transitions when a musician would come on or off the stage, it seemed last-minute but that was probably coordinated especially since the sound guy had to be prepared for exactly what point every musician is coming out to plug in the proper equipment. It felt like it was in a theater because it was so staged.
Apart from Mangum’s brilliance, I also thoroughly enjoyed the talents and pure joys in Julian Koster and his stage presence, who even dressed in traditional 90s fashionable track suit to hop around the stage playing the Wandering Genie organ, singing saw, bowed banjo, and accordion.
It was incredible to see enthusiasm of Scott Spillane sing along, unmic-ed through the entire set as his right forearm hopped along with Julian.
The melodic innocence, and universal poetry of the lyrics sung in the matchless voice of Jeff Mangum and burned into my memory and the crows around me, was perfectly achieved onstage- making the concert infinitely more enjoyable that listening to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” from a home stereo.
Had the audience not already been standing, Neutral Milk Hotel still would have surely left to standing ovation with the hoops and hollers of hipsters.