The three young women at the side of the stage were hugging each other as they danced and sang along to the eccentric songs of Jeff Mangum. One of them was even weeping as the rarely-seen singer-songwriter wailed from his seemingly weary but unbowed heart about holy rattlesnakes and two-headed boys over the urgent strumming of his acoustic guitar.
These girls couldn't have been much more than grade-schoolers when Mangum released his last album under the Neutral Milk Hotel band moniker in 1998. Yet his words and music obviously affected them as deeply as they touched the gray-haired guy who stood not far away from them, also transfixed by the troubadour seated center stage at the Diamond Ballroom last Saturday night, commanding the attention of a standing audience that filled more than half of the hangar-sized hall.
Since that last record release, Mangum has kept a low profile on the underground music scene — which is about as far below the skyline as you can get in the music business — but he announced last year that in 2013 he would embark on his first official acoustic solo tour more than a decade, playing his Neutral Milk Hotel masterworks, and the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma (ACM@UCO) arranged that Oklahoma City would be one of his tour stops, scheduling the show at the academy's Bricktown Performance Lab, which quickly sold out. So it was moved to the much larger Diamond to accommodate more fans — and there were plenty of them, considering Mangum's supposed obscurity and his long absence from recording and public performance.
When he entered without fanfare through a side door and took the stage — looking like the rock 'n' roll recluse that he is, with his long brown hair and beard, gray ball cap, comfortable old sweater, and sensible, unpolished black leather shoes — the crowd erupted in cheers, and Mangum smiled wordlessly and took a seat next to a rack of four acoustic guitars, selected one of them, and immediately plunged into “Two-Headed Boy,” the infectiously haunting, lyrically cryptic, rapid-fire, lo-fi, alt-folk-rocker that is one of the memorable key tracks from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the best of only two Neutral Milk Hotel albums recorded to date.
He was wasting no time getting to the good stuff, slowing the flow to mid-tempo for the anthemic “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” and “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. Two & Three,” which accelerated to full-tilt rhythm near its rollicking conclusion.
Mangum's powerfully emotive, ringing tenor voice swung effortlessly from jubilation to sadness and from anxiety to spiritual bliss, belting out his love for Jesus Christ one minute, bemoaning domestic violence the next, and painting psychedelic lyrical images of a world “wrapped in gold silver sleeves beneath Christmas trees in the snow.”
It was completely unplugged, sans the fuzz guitars, air organ, trumpets and assorted brass that brought a unique texture to the studio versions of these tunes, but Mangum's songcraft is just as solid in a solo acoustic setting as it is with full band support, thanks to his commanding musical stage presence, whether it's on a raucous rocker such as “Holland, 1945” or “Ghost,” or a gut-wrenching ballad like “Oh Comely.”
And if these 15-year-old songs are still potent enough to please young and old alike, as they did last Saturday night, maybe that's why Mangum, 42, hasn't bothered to pen a third album's worth of tunes in all this time. He is his own hard act to follow. At least he's getting out in front of his faithful followers once again, although it may be for the last time. He is one of a kind, and hard to figure.
But his fans will always be able to fly high “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
— Gene Triplett