Plenty has already been written about the fall and rise of Neutral Milk Hotel. The group disbanded in 1998 shortly after the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which in the ensuing 14 years has become one of the most beloved indie records of all time. So when reclusive frontman/songwriter Jeff Mangum began inching his way back into the spotlight a few years ago with increasingly frequent live performances, fans were understandably elated.
Mangum’s inclusion on this year’s Coachella lineup would be the first chance for large crowds to pay tribute to his heartbreaking songwriting. Aeroplane has earned Mangum so much good will that he didn’t need to knock his performance out of the park — he just needed to make sure the songs sounded somewhat similar to those dearly beloved recordings. Luckily, he did a lot more than that.
Five acoustic guitars adorned the otherwise empty Outdoor stage as the sun began to set. Repeated loudspeaker announcements informed the crowd that Mangum did not want to be photographed or filmed. The request fit the notoriously timid musician’s reputation, and only served to get the crowd more excited. But when the messianic musician finally ambled onto the stage in a flannel shirt and a hat casting a shadow over his eyes, he couldn’t have seemed more down to earth.
Opening with the mellow “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” Mangum’s vocals sounded as choked and emotional as ever, the ornate imagery of his lyrics providing a stark contrast to the rugged simplicity of his acoustic strums. “Holland, 1945” upped the energy, providing the audience with the first of what would be many singalong moments. The crowd’s voice threatened to dwarf Mangum’s, but he seemed relieved to share the spotlight. The large festival turnout provided an odd juxtaposition to Mangum’s coffee-shop rock, but the disparity testified to the potent, unique appeal of his songwriting.
Without any backing band, the songs sounded closer to Mangum’s Live at Jittery Joe’s record than the Neutral Milk Hotel versions, which allowed the lyrics to take center stage on “Gardenhead” and the Daniel Johnston cover “True Love Will Find You in the End.” Mangum must see a kindred spirit in Johnston’s reclusive, wounded genius, and he lent his cover a bleak optimism that felt at once beautiful and tragic.
Mangum relaxed as he launched into “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” and “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three,” inviting the crowd to once again sing along. Mangum thanked the audience for allowing him to play the songs as they were written on his grandma’s guitar so many years ago, then began strumming the opening chords of the set’s most transcendent song, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The crowd frantically sang along to each lyric, stopping only to shriek with joy or comment to friends about how amazing the song was. A horn section appeared behind Mangum to handle the bridge, finally lending the song that unmistakable Neutral Milk Hotel feel.
“Are you happy?” Mangum asked the attendees, who roared ecstatically. Once the crowd died down, one concertgoer thought to redirect the question at Mangum.
“Are you happy?” the fan shouted.
“I am right now,” Mangum replied. He didn’t smile when he said it, but it was enough.
Read our reviews of other Coachella 2012 performances
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Andrew Bird, Buzzcocks, and tUnE-yArDs
Radiohead, Feist, The Shins
The Hives and Gotye
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Florence and the Machine, Beirut, and Justice