In 2012, Jeff Mangum visited Seattle’s The Moore Theater for two nights, the first of which – as was the case at dates across the country – sold out almost instantaneously. It marked the first time he’d played since his vanishing from the public eye a good decade ago. Joined by members of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 Collective for a gorgeously intimate set, fans were like hikers gazing upon a deer, afraid to cause Mangum any discomfort lest he disappear for another decade. He jokingly tried to loosen the tension, opening with the statement “we can have a conversation if you guys want,” but it was met with nervous laughter.
Fast forward two years later, when the whole band (as well as Elephant 6 labelmate openers Elf Power) returned to the equally-intimate Neptune Theater this last Friday. Once again, no photography, audio or film recording was permitted, and while Mangum still seemed a bit uncomfortable with such an intense, loving spotlight, his post-song Namaste bows of thanks suggested he’s making peace with his role these days.
Amid the expected screams of “we love you!” from the crowd, Mangum started the set alone with “Two Headed Boy,” donning a massive beard in league with brassman bandmate Scott Spillane’s, as well as this famed sweater. The full band joined for the ending, which plowed right into a punk-heavy “Holland, 1945” followed by “A Baby for Pree.” The whole night would be surprisingly heavy, with extended noise-jams, and even some Foo Fighters-y moshing from the crowd on “Gardenhead” and “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 and 3” (aka “Jesus Christ” and “Up and Over”).
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” actually had a relatively quiet crowd response, although there were plenty of wet eyes and choked up throats. After “Naomi” and “Ferris Wheel on Fire,” everyone had regained their composure to enough belt along with the dark strums of “Oh Comely,” performed by Mangum solo: [LISTEN]
“Snow Song Part 1” finished with the noise-jam that, while intense, was obviously no way to lyrically wrap up NMH’s first Seattle set of the millennium. For the encore, we got a bit of the live energy on “Ghost” seen earlier in the set before taking it back to that distraught pleading of “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” and “Engine,” which Mangum described as a “lullaby” to put us all at ease to end the night.
In addition to their seven-piece setup fully capturing the low-fi Sousa noise rock sound of their recordings impeccably, and everyone doing their jobs on stage, there was certainly the sort of magic to the evening you’d expect when such a seminal band finally returns to its raving fans. It was much more raucous than Mangum’s 2012 solo set, and the only hiccups came on the occasion of drummer Jeremy Barnes’ fills rushing ahead of his beats as well as the rest of the band. Still, he gets a pass for his jazz-infused, impressionist-painting approach a la ex-Tera Melos’ Vince Rogers during the extended jams.
While NMH’s rise, and inability to heal its members’ pain, seem to take a massive toll on Mangum, he appears to be slowly realizing how right he originally was – his music specifically does have the power to heal. That’s why In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is so influential, timeless, and continues to sell with zero promotion. Touring may visibly grate on Mangum, but he seems to recognize just how much joy he brings his fans, as well as relief from their own pain. That’s why every attendee slept like a baby after the show.