Jeff Mangum is indie rock's J.D. Salinger. Since releasing a pair of albums in the '90s with his project Neutral Milk Hotel, the elusive musician has retreated into self-imposed exile. The records, 1996's On Avery Island and especially 1998's In the Aeroplane over the Sea, have come to be regarded as cult classics, but in the past decade and change, Mangum has avoided cashing in on their cachet, instead retreating from the public eye, emerging only occasionally to perform two-song sets with his friends in the Elephant 6 Recording Company or to release field recordings of Bulgarian folk music.
It was only natural, then, that Friday's solo set at Toronto's Trinity-St. Paul church carried such a sense of occasion. The first of two intimate, sold-out nights at the stately venue, the show signaled a modest return to his Neutral Milk Hotel roots, the first leg of a small ten-date tour, easily his longest in the last 13 years. It's unlikely many in attendance thought they would ever have the chance to hear these songs performed live, and some traveled from as far as Australia. The queue began at 11 am for the 8 pm concert.
So it was easy to understand the reverent hush in the air as Mangum took the stage. To the untrained eye, the reaction might have seemed disproportionate to the solitary plaid-clad figure seated on a stool in the middle of the stage. But to Neutral Milk Hotel fans the very existence of this moment was a minor miracle. The pent-up applause that greeted the slowly-strummed first chord of Aeroplane's eight-minute opus "Oh Comely" was positively rapturous. Mangum responded with a sheepish, slightly bemused grin before re-quieting the crowd with the power of his precise, emotive, occasionally strained vocals.
He spent the remainder of the hour-long set attempting to remove the pedestal that separated him from the audience, encouraging active participation even as most of the crowd politely observed the singer with awestruck silence. Fans have been trained to treat Mangum as a reclusive genius, but seated on the stage he seemed less a cowering eccentric than a regular, well-adjusted dude playing some tunes he wrote on an acoustic guitar.
"You guys have been pretty polite so far," he said in a rare bit of stage banter. "But feel free to sing or clap along." He later intensified his plea -- "fucking sing" -- and the crowd eventually obliged with a sing-along version of "King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3." He seemed every bit the religious leader, as he guided his followers in a chorus of "I love you Jesus Christ," but they seemed just as comfortable chanting along with the verbose, Anne Frank-inspired lyrics of his other Neutral Milk Hotel compositions. This was no group of casual fans; Mangum was preaching to the converted.
As acts like The Weeknd and WU LYF have managed to build buzz by avoiding the over-sharing social media of their peers and remaining shrouded in secrecy, Mangum's approach suddenly seems less novel. But while other musicians use it as a marketing gimmick, Mangum appears more like a musician who does it purely for the love of music and the sometimes painful joy of emotional expression.
Is this a return to active duty? Is there another Neutral Milk Hotel album on the horizon? Will his next performance come more than a decade from now? There's no real way to tell. And it seems Mangum prefers it that way.