Review: Jeff Mangum quietly dazzles at Beacham Theatre, Orlando 

A look back at the Jan. 26 show, setlist included.

Trying to explain your way out of drinking too much during the Gasparilla invasion is a delicate matter. When you're pressed into admitting the reason for not taking full part in Tampa's most festive of festivities, and the reason is because of an hour-and-a-half drive to a concert, the rolling of eyes and familiar frustrated sighs begin. However, when the inevitable question of "who's playing?" follows, and you mention Jeff Mangum's name, the blank stares you get in return are totally expected.

Mangum. For a specific group of music fans, the name itself has a certain mythological ring that sends a collective chill down our spines. Since his near-disappearance in 1998 after touring behind that year's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the man has been a unicorn; rarely glimpsed by anyone you might ever know, though rumors of his existence have persisted. It's somehow always felt like a very small, yet devoted, group of people who actually give a damn. Even the band he helmed, Neutral Milk Hotel, is largely unknown to an awful lot of people who really *should* know it.

Aeroplane was one of those albums that either grabbed you, set in its hooks and took up residence in your heart, or was completely ignored; there just wasn't any middle ground. A handful of repeated chords, over-emotive vocals, and lyrics about awkward sex, dysfunctional families, and dead Dutch girls just isn't everyone's idea of a great album. But for a particular group of Neutral Milk Hotel fans, the album's absolute sincerity and straightforwardness touches a place of great emotion, digging out a solitary spot of importance as many tears fell down many cheeks through the years.

It's no surprise the Orlando show at Beacham Theatre sold out in a hot second; the disbelief that Mangum was actually touring shaken off with instantly panicked impulse buys by fans across the state. The scene approaching the venue the night of the show was unexpected though; fans lining up down the street early to get inside. The real shocker was that the line wasn't mostly bookish, middle-aged music geeks - the vast majority were kids. Not just the typical youngish UCF hipster sect, but barely pubescent, brought-by-their-parents, wide-eyed and nearly shaking with excitement … kids. At this moment, it became very clear why Aeroplane's popularity has persisted, its unique pre-cynicism viewpoint and first glimpses of true emotional angst simply calling out to that tender age where we are all so desperately musically impressionable.

Alone on the darkened stage, a single spotlight focused on his chair and his guitars, Jeff Mangum was every bit the crazy recluse we were all expecting; disheveled hair and overgrown beard, and I imagine smelling a bit of solitude, sadness, and cheap wine. He was surprisingly chatty throughout the evening, peppering his set with explanations of when and why songs were written, and personal reactions to everything that has happened since Aeroplane became legend. The transparency and level of comfort was not anticipated, and even the sweet, humble humor in requesting the crowd not take photos, was tempered by an offer to provide drawings instead. Mostly, Jeff Mangum was gracious and thankful; genuinely surprised at the longevity of his success and the sheer number of people who continue to care so deeply about his music.

From the moment the first softly strummed notes of "Oh Comely" drifted from the acoustic guitar, I was nothing but wide eyes and a disbelieving grin. The voice was exactly the same as it's always been, pushing raw emotion to its limit, somehow still dredging up the same intensity that first existed so long ago. The palpable difference was, where Neutral Milk Hotel has always been a band of solitude for me, overplayed in the comfort of my room with only my own interpretations as company, tonight I was surrounded by thousands of kindred spirits, all of us singing along to nearly every word. Tears fell, bodies jerked impulsively — hell, I think the kid next to me may have even been drooling at one point as he gazed ahead.

Throughout the set — which included most of Aeroplane, some geeky b-sides to appease the uber-fans, and the requisite cover from another tortured songwriter (Roky Erickson) — the evening was absolutely everything any of us could have hoped for. Jeff Mangum's confession, though, that the room full of fans, the continued devotion … was more than he ever expected … was just another endearing reason why he's won our hearts. The idea that, as a collective group, our little sold-out show was able to give a moment of meaning back to the man after all he's given to us, was certainly more than this fan ever thought she'd experience.

Setlist:

Oh Comely
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Engine
Two-Headed Boy
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1
THe King of Carrot Flowers Pts 2 & 3
I Love the Living You
Oh Sister
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Naomi
Ghost
Two-Headed Boy Pt 2

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