"You're really GOOD!"
It was a fan review shouted midway through a set that had a lot of such give and take between the artist and his fans.
Although understated, in hipster fashion, it got to the heart of a question that had lingered for years: If Jeff Mangum were to show up in your town, would he be ... really good?
With most artists you already know, through YouTube, the press, word of mouth, past experience. Seeing Jeff Mangum, on the other hand, is like spotting Bigfoot.
The frontman for Neutral Milk Hotel mysteriously withdrew from the music scene in 1998 after releasing a second folk/punk album, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," that was musically stunning, emotionally involving and virtually out-weirded the weirdest: Dylan, Zappa, Cobain, Black Francis, you name it.
Over the past few years, there have been scattered Mangum sightings, but this was the second show of a tour with a no-photography/no-cell phone rule (but keep your eye on Instagram), and how he would look or sound was anyone's guess.
Taking the stage Thursday night at the sold-out Carnegie Music Hall, Mr. Mangum embodied the fine line between holy man and homeless person in a brown Nordic sweater, orangey-brown pants, green engineer cap, long stringy hair and the long beard flecked with gray that the mysterious missing guy always has in the movies.
To a roaring reception, he sat down, plucked one of four acoustic guitars, and with the first sung notes of "Two-Headed Boy" you could sense the relief and joy in the house, as he sounded every bit as raw and powerful as he did on record 15 years ago, through the melodic opening right into the spot where he jumps an octave. He strummed hard enough to create the impression of a full band.
When he was done, he actually talked, asking that the lights be dimmed on him and raised on the crowd. "I don't want to play to bright light. I want to play to people!" He added, "Feel free to sing along if you like," inviting fans to demonstrate their handle on every word to "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One," for starters, while turning the concert into an even more communal/religious experience. A true test of this one-man band was meeting the acoustic challenge of the punkest "Aeroplane" song with a furious reading of "King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three," that uses "I love you, Jesus Christ" as a launch pad for lyrical madness.
In all, he graced us with eight of the 11 "Aeroplane" songs, from the adrenalin burst through "Holland, 1945" to a densely poetic sing-along on "Oh Comely," with a lovely French horn part from Jeremy Thal of opening act Briars of North America.
Between songs, people shouted out titles and random comments, such as "I like your sweater!" "I like your beard!" to which he dryly mumbled, "You can have my sweater, but you can't have my beard."
A few songs in, fans had had enough with the formality of the hall and rushed the stage, a practice generally unheard-of for a guy sitting there with an acoustic guitar. "Music," he said, "is such a human thing, and we all do it, but it blows my mind that I get so much love from you, and it means so much to me. So thank you so much!"
Mr. Mangum veered away from "Aeroplane" for four songs, three of which came from the first album, "On Avery Island" ("Song Against Sex," "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" and "Naomi"). The other was "Oh Sister," which he said he wrote on the same day as "Oh Comely." It would have been yet another classic from "Aeroplane" if it hadn't been released in 2011.
He played just over an hour, ending the set with a gorgeously sung "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" and returning for an encore of "Aeroplane's" divine title track, with the French horn providing the warm coda. Needless to say, the Mangum faithful, who had waited so long and probably thought they'd never see this day, got more than they could ask for: a performer whose energy and pitch never lagged, one who smiled and seemed genuinely happy to be there and, even more importantly, who still seemed to be emotionally invested in the songs.
We can only hope it's a new beginning for a beloved artist who has a lot to live up to but surely has a lot more to offer.
Indie newcomers Briars of North America and Tall Firs played opening sets on this Warhol Sound Series show as though if there were a baby sleeping on the stage. The four-piece Briars offered hushed chamber folk with classical precision and exquisite harmonies. While less virtuosic, the Firs, a duo (plus occasional harp), brought a slight bit more Reed/Verlaine New York edge.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.music