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Jeff Mangum @ The Pabst Theater

Feb. 8, 2012

Feb. 9, 2012
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 It feels like forever ago when album releases constituted as events—fans circling their calendars, huddling outside record stores on Tuesday mornings and eagerly tearing through the always-cumbersome cellophane wrapping in order to finally hear the music inside. But, alas, with the rise of Internet piracy and, more specifically, the leaking of unreleased albums, those events have all but vanished. For better or worse, the only way to capture that same feeling nowadays is to catch a band live. And when a musician hasn't performed since albums were events, his show is, well, quite the event.

A palpable anxiety marked the hushed crowd that waited for former Neutral Milk Hotel singer Jeff Mangum to take the Pabst Theater stage Wednesday night. He has played random gigs since his band broke up following the outfit's seminal indie-rock album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but this is his first proper tour in more than a decade. A cult figure before, the hiatus has made him into something of a spiritual leader. A delightfully comfortable opening set from Andrew, Scott & Laura helped calm everyone's nerves. The trio leaned on their electric guitar-based folk material (Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter front Elf Power and Scott Spillane is in The Gerbils) and barreled through some personal favorites from Randy Newman, Chris Knox and Frank Sinatra.

Relief spread throughout the audience as Mangum finally made his way onto the stage. Even though reviving long-dormant acts is nothing new—dozens of groups have been cashing in on '90s nostalgia these past few years—Mangum's reclusiveness has always made this night seem uncertain. Mostly accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar, Mangum delivered stripped-down versions of tracks from Neutral Milk Hotel's two records. Gone was Aeroplane's fuzzed-out melodrama and the abrasiveness of Neutral Milk Hotel's debut, On Avery Island. What remained was what Mangum does best: accessible pop songs.

During the brief 14-song set, Mangum ferociously hammered away at his guitar with an unwavering ease. On "Oh Comely" he sang about yearning to rescue Anne Frank via a time machine, and, sure enough, Mangum, like a man transported through time, sounded as fresh as ever, as though the last decade had never happened. Versions of "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2" and "April 8th" early on embraced the singer's frighteningly real intimacy. Part of Mangum's appeal is that he has the ability to develop these close connections and sing right through you. Never has the Pabst Theater felt this small.

Mangum still acts ill at ease when dealing with such a big group—a nervous breakdown over being heralded as an icon kept him distant all these years. Between songs he awkwardly listened to catcalls and routinely suggested that people sing along. And like the religious leader many proclaim him to be, Mangum's devout congregation followed. It technically wasn't a church service, but that's only because something this communal, cathartic and ephemeral could never be duplicated.


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