Jeff Mangum has not returned to Denver in fourteen years, and it shows. You can tell through the slight smile that spreads across the bottom half of his face between songs, through his consistent habit of muttering "Thank you" into the microphone after each one -- right after uncorking a water bottle and right before lifting it to his lips. You can tell when, during a brief lull, he tunes his grandfather's guitar, glances into the audience and keeps on looking. And you can tell through his stories -- of which there are many.
Mangum is short on small talk but long on history, both his own and his band's: It was in this city that the quiet, commanding singer completed most of the work on both Neutral Milk Hotel masterpieces, On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in the late 1990s. He lived here, in a shitty boiler room close to Colfax, for roughly two years across three different shifts, and says, "It's like a dream to be back. I was walking around on Downing earlier and was like, 'That's were I used to live.'" He paused to correct himself. "I did more than live here. This town was really fucking good to me."
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So last night, he returned the favor. After pacing briskly onto the stage and lowering his frame onto a stool, the notoriously reclusive former frontman greeted his audience with a grin and a "Hi" before launching into "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2." It's both difficult and rare to describe that introduction, both because of his extensive absence from the road and because he has returned to champion the same songs that overwhelmed him enough to drive him away so many years ago.
Occasionally, they seemed to do so once more: By the time he finished that first song, without even removing his right hand from his acoustic guitar, Mangum had minimized his stage presence, imploring a tech to lower the volume of his mike and turn down the glare of the spotlight. Before he even appeared on stage, the crowd had been warned courteously but sternly against snapping photos of any kind. When one particularly bright flash broke the ambience, Mangum directed a brief glare in the camera holder's general vicinity. He only did so once.
The focus, then, was entirely on the music. During "Oh Comely," Mangum's lips strained along with the pearl snaps on his plaid shirt as he forced its lovely, unsettling lines out between clenched teeth. Echoing the brilliance of his late-'90s fervor, his voice never wandered or wavered. It wailed. Throughout stormy cult classics such as "Holland, 1945" and "Two-Headed Boy," Mangum focused directly ahead, loosing his jaw wide when the note called for it and baring his teeth when the moment did.
Clear and capable, his spooky, silvery tongue lilts about the "bright and bubbly" and snarls about "bristling and ugly" with the same fevered strength -- bitter and then sweet, and occasionally both at once. By the time he released the line "Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine," the audience had already melded everything less physical.
Behind him, Elephant 6 vets Scott (Spillane), Andrew (Rieger) and Laura (Carter) followed their opening set with the staid and subtle accompaniment to his. With the addition of Spillane's flugelhorn, the stage occasionally featured half of Neutral Milk Hotel proper, augmented at times by Carter's bold trumpet and accordion. (Carter also played on Aeroplane.)
During their own turn on the stage, the three interspersed material from the Gerbils and Elf Power with covers to produce a winsome if strategically small introduction. Hooked up to a tiny amp with a microphone attached, the ethereal trio took steps so modest that Mangum's powerhouse voice later appeared that much more overwhelming.
That voice took a toll on its audience, whose members swayed lazily and sweatily with palms over hearts and cell phones happily relegated to pockets. (Crowd-wide goosebumps broke out during the world's eeriest sing-along, hundreds of voices breathlessly in sync with Mangum's wail on "Two-Headed Boy.")
And it took a different toll on its owner; by song ten, he had removed the throat spray from his khakis. By its followup, he was making sense of the night's end. At almost an hour on the dot, the set was everything it had to be and exactly nothing more, the kind of show where you wish you had someone to call in the middle if you could somehow just bring yourself to interrupt the spell and hold out your phone. But that action might have earned a frown from its inspiration.
"I've said this before, but there's this feeling that these records have been out there touching people," Mangum told his quiet crowd. "I didn't really know what to expect when I did this again. It feels like I'm reaching my people." And as he launched into closer "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," the floor shook slightly as those people clapped in unison.
Page through for a Critic's Notebook, setlist, more photos and additional Denver stories from Mangum.
Personal Bias: To date, I have never been able to get through In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with my eyes completely dry -- not even in mixed company.
By the Way: Backbeat officially nominates Jeff Mangum for the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. For proof of his ties to the state, pay close attention to the following extra anecdotes. "[In Denver], I lived in my friend's walk-in boiler room apartment, where he was like, 'If my landlord comes in, you've got to pick up your mattress. We have to make it look as much like a closet as possible.'" And: "I used to walk down Colfax every day. That was around the time of day I used to feel freaked out and talk to myself. I used to go to the bookstore and find the first book and try to get a message from it. I'd look up to see a girl standing there all freaked out, and I'd be like, 'I'm sorry, just trying to get a message.'"
Random Detail: During "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3," the dude behind me remarked, "It's the one song I never listen to." This is a mistake. It should just be the one you never listen to on a date.
Jeff Mangum Ogden Theatre - 4/26/12 Denver, CO
01. "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" 02. "Holland, 1945" 03. "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" 04. "True Love Will Find You in the End" (Daniel Johnston cover) 05. "King of Carrot Flowers P. 1" 06. "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3" 07. "Song Against Sex" 08. "Oh Comely" 09. "Ghost" 10. "Naomi" 11. "April 8th" 12. "Two-Headed Boy" 13. "The Fool"
14. "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
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