It’s difficult to pinpoint just exactly what has led Neutral Milk Hotel-mastermind Jeff Mangum to achieve what has evidently culminated in a godlike status. His wailing excursions through long-winding strings of grotesque and bizarre imagery of sex, science experiments and Holocaust references — sprinkled with joyful chanting over violent guitar strums, organs and bagpipes and singing saws — hardly qualifies the artist for such cult-like worship. Yet, even after the band’s indefinite hiatus following Mangum’s mental breakdown in 1998, his defining masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, maintains a special place in fans’ hearts. It’s one of those albums that is precious for each fan in a different, inexplicable way; each listen is an experience that non-fans just wouldn’t understand.
Whatever the reason for Mangum’s appeal, he nailed it down totally accurately at his tour stop at the State Theatre Wednesday with a confession that seemed to encompass the very reason for his fans’ steadfast loyalty: “I’ll give you my heart; that’s all I can do.”
Upon making this painfully sincere remark early on in his set, it would become clear that Mangum absolutely kept his promise. Everything he played during his residence at the State, he played straight from his heart, and he was nothing short of extraordinary. Wednesday’s event was not so much a performance as it was a celebration of fans’ adoration for Mangum’s signature work. The Ithaca sector of the Mangum cult congregated not in worship of Mangum (although there definitely was some of that), but in unity under his brief but remarkable and much-loved discography. It certainly helped that Mangum encouraged the crowd to sing along with him before launching into each song. Call it a gimmick, but singing along to adored tracks like “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost” with fellow fans and Mangum himself is truly the ultimate way to experience his work. A packed theater of fans were lucky enough to be present for an unforgettable evening.
Everything about the performance was refreshingly nonchalant: the crowd hardly noticed when Mangum casually walked onto the stage like he had just rolled out of bed. But once he launched into Aeroplane’s nine-minute, Anne Frank-referencing epic “Oh Comely,” he had the crowd’s undying attention. What’s more remarkable is that Mangum held his command on the audience throughout the night despite his spare setup: Seated in the center of the stage accompanied by nothing but a guitar and microphone, he had a mesmerizing effect as he powered through Aeroplane favorites like “Two-Headed Boy” (which he revealed is the first song he wrote for the landmark album) and “King of Carrot Flowers Parts 1-3.” Even when excitement levels couldn’t get any higher, the opening chords of the iconic “Carrot Flowers” were met with cheers of nostalgic glee.
While the evening was primarily devoted to tracks off Aeroplane, Mangum sporadically broke into numbers from NMH’s debut On Avery Island like “Gardenhead” and “Song Against Sex” in addition to non-album songs like “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and “Oh Sister,” which he described as the “Siamese song” to “Oh Comely.” Judging by the lack of audience participation during these renditions, the crowd was certainly less familiar with these earlier tracks than with the cuts from Aeroplane, but the songs nevertheless proved just as captivating.
The highlight of the evening found the audience treated to a mini-NMH reunion for the encore. Julian Koster, the frontman of opening act The Music Tapes and a former Mangum bandmate accompanied Mangum on non-album track “Engine” and a stunning rendition of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” with the singing saw. Koster’s talent was no surprise: earlier in the night, he and his group put on one of the most unique musical performances in recent memory. The set, which provided a clear contrast with the coffeehouse guitar ballads of Tall Firs, the openers, managed to embody a sort of childlike whimsy, complete with a number “sung” by Static the Singing Television (which is exactly what it sounds like — weird and wonderful). Koster and his players demonstrated complete lack of inhibition within their act, providing a collection of tunes that combined melancholic and vaguely nostalgic lyrics with a miscellany of bells, cymbals, banjoes and, of course, Koster’s singing saw. In several stunning demonstrations of his talents, Koster often managed to play two — or more — of these instruments simultaneously.
Koster’s bow-and-saw accompaniment proved a natural musical complement to Mangum’s acoustic version of fan favorite, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The closer was the evening’s defining moment, giving NMH fanatics a memory to cherish with a moment that only could have been experienced in the company of friends and strangers alike gathered in the name of Mangum’s work. With their stunning rendition, Koster and Mangum capped off a monumental evening, demonstrating the enduring magic of the artists’ profoundly moving musical creations.