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Jeff Mangum in Philly, For the First Time in 12 Years.

January 30, 2012
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Text by Dana Lucchine.

As anyone who goes to concerts nowadays knows, people tend to view music performances through their camera phones. It’s a sad effect of our ever-improving technological world. We often miss out on the action because we are so desperate to document it.

The mysterious Jeff Mangum, who returned to Philadelphia last Wednesday, nipped this problem in the bud. No photography of any kind was allowed, which turned out to be a wonderful decision.

The music – fiercely personal yet universal – served as the only focus of the night. He came on stage with no new tunes and instead played those the audience knew and loved.

The frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel disappeared from the music scene some 12 years ago, after the band’s release of the massively popular album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Themes of sex and God, violence and death, love and loss pervade that record, and similar musical themes took over the show in Philly last week.

Penn’s gorgeous Irvine Auditorium served as the perfect setting for Mangum’s return. He remained sitting throughout the evening, surrounded by four guitars. Despite his reputation as a recluse, he was surprisingly personable with the audience, urging them to fill the aisles closer to the stage and sing along. By the end of the evening, everybody was accompanying his signature wail.

As Mangum closed his set with “Oh Comely” and “Two-Headed Boy,” former NMH member Julian Koster, the leader of the opening act The Music Tapes, climatically marched down the aisle with another bandmate, joining Mangum on stage. It suddenly became clear that the whole evening had been leading to this musical surprise. The three jumped into a beautiful, poignant version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The Fool,” while the audience, mostly in tears, surrounded them.

Jeff returned once more for an encore, and then he was gone – but hopefully not for another 12 years.

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