In North Adams on Feb.16, Jeff Mangum played to a crowd at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that was packed to the rafters. Despite being buried deep within the Berkshires in one of the smallest city in Massachusetts, this solo acoustic show sold out within hours of being announced.
To the uninformed onlooker, Mangum’s draw might be a mystery— his graying beard and straightforward guitar work don’t seem extraordinarily impressive at first glance. But Mangum fronted the critically-acclaimed indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel in the late ‘90s – a band that was known for its esoteric lyricism and unorthodox instrumentation often including booming bass and fuzzy guitar.
In 1998, shortly after releasing its second album “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” which saw little commercial success but was wildly praised by critics, Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded – allegedly due to Mangum suffering a nervous breakdown. After avoiding the public eye for roughly a decade, Mangum has returned to the stage occasionally, but with greater and greater frequency lately.
The intensely private Mangum influenced such acts as Arcade Fire, the Decemberists and Franz Ferdinand with his sonic experimentation..To see Mangum back on stage after his breakdown and his band’s subsequent breakup is truly a blessing, which is apparent by the wide draw of fans to the concert.
Preceding Mangum at the MASS MoCA were the melancholic folk duo Tall Firs and the wildly experimental indie pop outfit the Music Tapes. The latter is fronted by another former Neutral Milk Hotel member, Julian Koster, and featured such memorably eclectic instrumentation as a musical saw, orchestral banjos, a French horn and a 7 foot tall metronome.
The cheers were deafening when Mangum sat down at the front of the stage, patrol cap pulled low against the stage lights.
“If you would sing, well then, sing now,” Mangum said before launching into “Holland, 1945”
On stage, Mangum is subdued between songs, scarcely mumbling in response to the audience but during his songs he comes alive, staring straight ahead and singing with such passion that it seems he has his whole band backing him despite performing solo on this tour. Though he encourages his audience to participate, especially to hum the horn parts from the original recordings, most in the crowd couldn’t keep up with his rapid-fire and droning chants and were left solemnly hushed and slack-jawed.
The MASS MoCA proved an intriguing venue – to get to the converted mill, fans had to traverse the hairpin turns of a mountain road and walk around the winding wings of the complex, which features an exhibit of trees growing upside down, suspended from telephone poles. In addition to the acoustically top-notch performance space, the museum also featured a cafe and a bar, which served delicious Berkshire Brewing Company beers for an unheard price of $5. Part of the profit of each ticket sale was given to the Children of the Blue Sky Foundation, a charity dedicated to supporting Mongolian street kids.
Taking up his musical saw again, Koster rejoined Mangum for a two-song encore, playing fan favorites “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” and the unreleased “Engine.”
Mangum departed without a word to ecstatic applause, and when the house lights came on the audience blinked and grinned sheepishly at each other, wondering where the time went during a sublime moment so transcendent that they forgot who they were.
Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.