Music

Among the Prophets of Indie Rock

On the return of Jeff Mangum.

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After a decade-long hiatus, Jeff Mangum has returned to claim his place among the prophets of indie rock. Having embarked on an American tour, he’s managed to rekindle the spirits that carried him to prominence with Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. However, Mangum has done more than just showcase the songs that pushed him into the spotlight in the late 1990s; in small venues across the country he’s pulled fans together in a way that is as close as live music gets to religion.

I drove from Baltimore to York, PA last week with two friends to see the elusive artist play. The theater was filled, and most of the attendees, as expected, were in character, clad in flannels and Buddy Holly glasses. Yet the minute Mangum came out on stage all individual identity was dropped with the dimming of the lights. He shuffled out in front of the crowd wearing his typical brown sweater, baseball cap, and a lumberjack style beard. Without a word of introduction he launched in the opening chords of the chillingly beautiful “Oh Comely” and pulled the entire Strand-Capitol into his world. He then tore into the first verse with a booming voice that quickly accessed the emotions that define Aeroplane.

It was remarkable. I’ve never seen an artist with such complete control of his audience. His passion was infectious, and from the crowd he crafted a cathedral-like chorus that surrounded him with a wall of sound. During the hour-long performance, fans sung every lyric and even some of the horn parts for the more popular tracks. Most people got out of their seats for the encores to get as close to the stage as possible for performances of “Ghost” and the title track. Jamming the aisles and standing in the exit rows, they filled into the tiny space near the front rows and blanketed the Strand-Capitol with Mangum’s cathartic lyrics.

When the show was over my friend Ben remarked that it was the most “communal” live performance he had seen. A couple of days after the show I began to compare Mangum to some of the other acts I had seen recently, like Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dave Matthews. Mangum came out on top. I wondered why a man so removed from celebrity has been able to create performances that larger acts with greater followings are unable to equal. It could be the simplicity of a single man on stage with his guitar, coupled with the overwhelming participation of the audience. Or perhaps it’s because he’s been away for so long. In any case, Mangum is back, with his unique mix of mysticism and melody.

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