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Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel comes out of seclusion for benefit concert in New York

By David Malitz - in New York

Thursday night's show at Manhattan nightclub Le Poisson Rouge was a 7-hour marathon that served as a benefit for cult New Zealand indie-rock favorite Chris Knox, who suffered a stroke last year and is going through a long and expensive recovery. The concert raised a staggering $40,000+ dollars for his medical fund and featured scintillating performances by fellow Kiwi icons the Clean, indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo, TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan performing as Portastatic (backed by Yo La Tengo).

(Photography was not allowed during the concert, but some hand-held video footage has materialized on YouTube. We've embedded clips above and after the jump.)

But the reason the $75 tickets sold out instantly was the scheduled appearance of Jeff Mangum, the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel mastermind who has basically been off the music radar since recording his 1998 opus "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." It was his name that made this a hot ticket and it was his performance that everyone was most looking forward to. That's a lot of pressure for an artist who has gone out of his way to avoid any and all press, last played a show of his own in 2001 (in New Zealand, at Knox's request) and last performed a proper show of his own in the States when Bill Clinton was still in office.

Since then, his legend has grown to epic proportions: "Aeroplane" is widely regarded as one of the best albums of the '90s and any hint of his re-emergence triggers much salivating on the Internet.

(Mangum justifies his indie-deity status in 20 minutes or less, after the jump)

Mangum was scheduled for a solo acoustic set relatively early in the evening -- 8:40 p.m. for a show that ran until 1 a.m. Nobody knew what to expect. Would he be lucid? Would he be entirely awkward? Would he play songs people recognized? Would he even play at all? We hoped for greatness, we would be happy with three songs, but we wouldn't be shocked by a trainwreck.

What we got were 20 minutes that reminded us why Magnum has been elevated to deity status.

He sat at the front of the club's stage with just an acoustic guitar, a single mic a few feet away serving as the only amplification. And then he went into "Oh, Comely," the eight-minute centerpiece of "Aeroplane." Talk about diving in head first. It's a rollercoaster of a song, peaks, valleys, all-out bellowing, false endings. And he nailed it. After an initial cheer that basically translated to "Holy [expletive]! It's Jeff Mangum and he's playing "Oh, Comely" the packed house stood in revered silence.

Next came a modified version of "A Baby for Pree" from debut album "On Avery Island." Then another of "Aeroplane"s wrenching epics, closing track "Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2." And again, he was perfect. His lyrics maintained all of their mystical qualities thanks to a voice that sounded almost exactly as it did on the 12-year old record.

"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" closed the set and turned the club into a singalong. At first it was frustrating -- it could be another 10 years before he plays again, shouldn't we be listening to him sing? But there was just too much joy for people to resist. Grown men were actually on the verge of tears. There was more singing along during an encore of "Engine" -- a little more understandable since it is pretty much a children's song. And then it was over. Five songs. If you know anyone who was at this show, you will be hearing them talk about those five songs for a long, long time.

Maybe the best part of his performance wasn't even the fact that he sounded sublime or played a greatest hits set. It's that he seemed so perfectly normal. Stay away for as long as he has and you gain a reputation as an eccentric, a nutjob, someone afraid to perform. That wasn't the case on Friday. Maybe it was because he was helping his friend Knox, maybe it was some other reason. But for 20 minutes Magnum was just a guy on stage, playing some truly great songs. There was nothing mysterious about it. He managed to kill some mystique and build some legacy. A mighty fine trade off.

By Chris Richards  |  May 7, 2010; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Chris Knox, Jeff Mangum, Kyp Malone, Neutral Milk Hotel, Portastatic, Superchunk, TV on the Radio, Yo La Tengo, the Clean  
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Comments

Man, I wish that I had been there! This sounds like an amazing event. Chris Knox fans, my Burning Sky Records label is working on a tribute album to Chris' old band Toy Love as we speak. We have the blessing of Chris and the other band memmbers, and it is going to be great! You can read more about it at www.myspace.com/songsoftoyloverevisited
Cheers,
Alan Heaton

Posted by: burningskyrecords | May 8, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

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