Jeff Mangum thrills Chapel Hill crowd
It took some coaxing from the unassuming Jeff Mangum before the murmur of voices was mildly audible, and it wasn’t until nearly the end of his set that his hundreds of new back-up vocalists actually raised their voices to meet him. “If you sing along at home there’s no reason you shouldn’t here,” he said near the beginning of his performance. Before launching into “Two-Headed Boy” — his 12th song of the night — he gently prodded the audience again, and when they obliged, he said, “It sounds beautiful” between lyrics during his Jan. 30 show in Chapel Hill. Since Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded more than a decade ago, Mangum has been elusive, explaining he suffered a mental breakdown and took time off for himself. Reappearing occasionally for benefit concerts and a surprise acoustic performance at Occupy Wall Street this fall, it’s likely nearly all the audience members hadn’t seen him perform in years, or considering the median age of the crowd, this was their first time altogether. While they may have needed reassurance about their collective singing abilities, the crowd didn’t hesitate to applaud and cheer wildly as Mangum first stepped out onto the stage, after an unexpected opening act by three members of Elephant 6, a music collective Mangum helped found, and an announcement that he requested no photography or recording. Throughout the show, he maintained a positive rapport with his fans, joking about the large and decadent venue, Memorial Hall on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus, saying he wanted to be spat on by the seated audience. When Guilford College senior Matt Putney yelled, “We love you!” from the balcony, Mangum paused and smiled as he said, “Thanks, my friend.” As he had done at the two preceding concerts, Mangum opened his set with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” and “Holland 1945” before playing the older “Gardenhead/ Leave Me Alone.” With a few changes in order he replicated the set list almost exactly, though performing one extra song, the less-popular and arguably gentler “April 8.” Between each song, except for the few times he transitioned between two without pausing, his fans were about as rowdy as a seated audience could be, short of throwing things on stage. Their overexcitement poured out in song requests and supportive comments like Putney’s. Neutral Milk Hotel only released two full-length albums, with the second, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, reaching more critical acclaim. Mangum played every song off the band’s second album — except for “Communist Daughter” and an untitled instrumental track — while playing just four off On Avery Island. Mangum threw in a few other songs, including the dark “Little Birds” which, as he told the audience “is one of the last songs I wrote before I snapped.” He sat on stage surrounded by a ring of four acoustic guitars, continually tuning the one he used for “Little Birds” because it was his grandfather’s and was a little worse for wear. He only turned to the fourth and smallest guitar for “Two-Headed Boy,” and for a handful of songs including “The Fool” the opening band and sometimes two others would walk on stage to briefly provide a horn or percussion section before leaving quickly. As the last notes of “The Fool” rang out, some people began rising to their feet, remaining there as Mangum smiled and waved while walking off stage. It wasn’t long before he returned for a two-song encore of “Songs Against Sex” and “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” and the audience remained standing and finally belted out the words after Mangum said, “I want to hear all of your voices on this one” before launching into the final song. Mangum left little to be desired besides a venue without assigned seating, yet some maneuvered around security to stand in the aisles during the encore. Had he not performed for just over an hour in the well lit hall, ears poking out from his long straight hair and a distinct brown hat on his head, Mangum may have been able to slip in amongst the crowd and go unnoticed, blending in with a sea of flannel and sweaters without anyone detecting his two decades of seniority on most in attendance.