If you want to see photos and video of Jeff Mangum‘s long-awaited return as a spotlight performer for the first time in a decade (despite claims to the contrary, he has performed in public during that time at least once, playing one song and helping out on the Elephant 6 tour in 2008), you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Yes, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? was at Manhattan’s (Le) Poisson Rouge last night when the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman performed at three-song set with a one-song encore as part of a sold-out Chris Knox benefit. I got inside with a 3.2-megapixel camera-equipped BlackBerry. But surreptitious photography and videography just didn’t seem to be in the spirit of things last night.
Ben Goldberg, who organized and ran last night’s benefit and amazingly kept it running on time, made things pretty clear:
Do not photograph the bands while they play. Do not film the bands while they play. We’ve turned down some pretty incredible offers to record this for various outlets so that you can enjoy the show unencumbered, so – hey – don’t be a dick. Just soak it in, let the glory of the moment wash over you, and then spend the rest of your life reminiscing at how great it was that you are alive and were there.
And soak it in I did! But, as expected, there were more than a few dicks in the crowd last night. Sad, but a fact of life. So in about 30 seconds, Google will point you to sites with grainy photos and videos. Yes, I’ve looked at them. How could I not? But I can’t in good conscience promote them.
It was clear that many of the people who paid $75 apiece to help Chris, an influential New Zealand indie rocker who suffered multiple strokes last year, were there just to hear Jeff. While the Louisiana native never really completely dropped out of sight, he has been a man of mystery since disbanding NMH after a tour to support its final album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in 1998.
Jeff was greeted with ear-splitting applause. He appeared to be genuinely gratified by the reception as he came onstage with no ceremony, set up two guitars, and sat in a chair and prepared to play. Someone in the audience yelled out ‘We missed you,” to which he responded, “I missed you too.” One concertgoer positioned close to the stage reports he added a tiny coda to that remark, saying just under his breath, “Don’t think that I haven’t.”
He launched into his set with “Oh Comely.” His voice sounded just a bit weak at first, but then it became clear he hadn’t quite adjusted to the room and the sound setup. It was a revelation to see that his distinctive vocal sound stems from the fact that he didn’t use a vocal microphone, but rather just sang loudly enough for his voice to be picked up by the mic set up for his acoustic guitar. The strain of singing so loudly, coupled with his deliberately nasal delivery, makes Jeff’s singing so memorable and touching.
The crowd went wild as he continued his set with “A Baby for Pree” and “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.″ Then with a quick “This is my last song,” Jeff launched into the title song of NMH’s final album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Jeff is one of the most poetic lyricists in rock music, and “Aeroplane” may be the most beautifully sad song he’s released. Many of us were in tears as he sang the lines: “And one day we will die/And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea/But for now we are young/Let us lay in the sun/And count every beautiful thing we can see.”
It was hard to imagine he could top that rendition. It was as close to perfect as live music should be. The crowd begged for more. And I hoped against hope that he’d stay in the green room, ignoring calls for an encore. (After all, this concert was a showcase-format gig, and artists don’t normally take encores.) I wanted more, but I really wanted to be left wanting. The prospect of an encore loomed like a big buzzkill for the mood Jeff’s set created.
But it was impossible for him to resist. He returned to more applause to play “Engine” — asking us to sing along — before picking up his guitars and gig bags and walking off with a huge smile on his face. I can’t complain. It was another great moment. And the people who were there just to hear Jeff wanted to hear anything. As one young fan in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt told me, “I’d listen to him string his guitar, man. I’d listen to him gargle!” And Jeff did far better than that last night.
Unlike some of last night’s performers — Kyp Malone (TV on the Radio/Rain Machine), and Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew (Yo La Tengo) — Jeff didn’t hang at the side of the stage to watch other bands. But he didn’t disappear after his set. He returned to the music room, with his wife, documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, to greet some friends and happily shake fans’ hands. He looked happy and peaceful.