By Emily Csukardi
Fifteen years after the release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” musician Jeff Mangum gifted fans with a rare acoustic performance at Downtown Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom on the evening of March 28.
Neutral Milk Hotel, best known for their 1998 album “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” lived a short but significant existence—the band formed in 1996 and only months after the release of the album, they broke up.
Singer, lyricist and guitarist Jeff Mangum propelled his own solo musical career along with cofounding The Elephant Six Recording Company.
Known for seldom playing concerts and a reputation of reclusive behavior, Mangum’s presence within the small concert venue was a rare occurrence.
With nothing besides his guitar and a microphone, Mangum began the set with “Holland, 1945,” a fast-paced song of love and departure from the 1998 album. Without the signature trumpets, pounding drums and fuzzy-sounding guitar associated with Neutral Milk Hotel’s recorded albums, Mangum’s familiar voice paired with one guitar provided a realm of musical intimacy.
His set remained short and sweet, playing memorable songs from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” such as “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3,” “Two Headed Boy,” “Oh Comely” and “Ghost.”
Mangum also played songs from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1996 debut album “On Avery Island” such as “Naomi” and “Gardenhead,” which received just as much applause and shouts of admiration from long-time fans.
The sold-out show contained a crowd filled with an array of fans—from fathers holding plastic beer cups, teenage couples dancing, and singular people who were old enough to have heard the albums for the first time when they were released in the 1990s. Surprisingly, many of the singing voices within the crowd came from the youngest fans, who likely hadn’t reached their preteen years when “On Avery Island” first came out.
With a humble voice and low-key appearance, Mangum with his long beard and flannel shirt thanked the audience often for their devoted participation.
During songs such as “Oh Comely,” Mangum stopped singing and let the sea of audience voices carry the melody throughout the room. As for the parts in the songs that once called for trumpets and brass, fans took care of mimicking the sounds.
For a sold-out show, the atmosphere within the venue was not overbearing. With only Mangum to focus on in front of a red-lit curtain, the audience remained attentive for the set in its entirety, despite the occasional screams for song requests by eager fans.
Mangum finished his set with an encore, playing his most well known song named after the album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Known for his poetic lyrical reflections on dreams and life intertwining, the singing-along from the audience was most prominent during his final line, “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
His set lasted a little over an hour, and as he left the stage, the audience continued smiling and cheering. Mangum remained plentiful with his “thank yous” towards the receptive audience. After all, having fans of all ages sing back to him the lyrics he once wrote and performed over fifteen years ago, is a rarity in itself.