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On Saturday night, Jeff Mangum, a white man standing about 6’2” and wearing a green button-down shirt and tan cap, walked onstage at the Lincoln Theatre, strummed an acoustic guitar, and sang for about 70 minutes with few interruptions.  When he was done, he walked off the stage.  As he did, the house lights came on, and for the first time since the show began, attendees could see their neighbors: every last one of them was in a state of awestruck hysteria.

Buy why? Assuming that the Lincoln Theatre’s patrons have either been teenagers, lived in a college dorm, or stayed in a hostel, what they saw didn’t exactly break new ground: a guy with long hair strumming open chords on an acoustic guitar and singing is roughly the musical equivalent of a Honda Accord.

  • Q: So why the hysteria? Did he put on a crazy show? A: He sat down and played guitar.
  • Q: Was the chair he was sitting on strapped to a rocket? A: No.
  • Q: Did the guitar change shapes while he was playing, increasing the difficulty of his feat? A: No.
  • Q: Was there a miniature knife juggling monkey atop his cap? A: No.
  • Q:  Did he play the guitar particularly well? He certainly didn’t screw up any of the chords he was playing… but nothing he played would have been out of a place in a My First Guitar Training Manual.

I’m hammering this home in hopes that you pick up the following point: viewed from one perspective, the seventy minutes I spent in the Lincoln Theatre was deeply, profoundly mundane.

But from my perspective, and from what I gathered of the perspectives of the other 1,124 attendees, those 70 minutes were ecstatic on the verge of divine.

Music, like any art, is a form of communication.  Through music, artists can shed the limitations of mere words and tap the veins of purer stuff: emotions and thoughts and ideas and feelings that sound dumb when you try to explain them aloud.  Jeff Mangum understands this; his songs are better at plunging into the depths of fear and disgust, rushing into surges of joy, and gliding among the nebulous clouds of introspection than any novel or poem I’ve read. As a result, the bonds formed between his music and his fans are intensely, vigorously personal. The songs, which sound bizarre and out of place at parties, sound perfect when blasted in a bedroom or in a car with no one in the passenger seat. The music is something you want to cherish, to protect, to keep to yourself. It is yours… until you find someone else who has applied for and attained membership in the secret club.

And membership in the club is rewarding indeed.  My freshman-year roommate and I bonded over Newcastle beer and dog-howl versions of “Two Headed Boy.”  A guy at my law school sings “Oh Comely” at me when we cross in the hallway.  I bonded with my personal hero Dan Snaith over the structure of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.  Stephen Colbert’s a card-carrying member. So are the members of Arcade Fire.

But the greatest perk of my membership came about five minutes into Saturday night’s set, when Mangum invited the crowd to sing along to his second song. And after four strums of his C chord, we attendees – club-members all – sang the words to “Holland, 1945” in broken, 1,126-part harmony.

The night went upward from there.  Mangum ran through virtually all of In The Aeroplane, taking special care to sing the trumpet parts, and much of On Avery Island, including “Song about Sex” and 2nd encore crowd-pleaser “Gardenhead/ Leave Me Alone.”  Throughout the evening, his piercing, reed-like voice was as clear and present and powerful as it is on record.  His face, normally steely, demonically twisted and strained when singing the horn accompaniment to “Oh Comely,” but he was in good spirits all night: he bantered with the audience and encouraged shouting and question asking.  Q: “Where have you been for the past decade?” A: “Living life, being happy.”  Q: “Will you record again?” A: “I don’t know.” Q: “TAKE IT OFFFF.” A: “You don’t want to see that.”

The show reached its apex when, after a particularly stirring version of “Two Headed Boy,” three members from Music Tapes entered stage left, playing “The Fool” on a trumpet, floor tom, and accordion, and sustained into the first encore, when Mangum, aided by Julian Koster on the singing saw, guided the audience through a full-volume singalong version of “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

If you know anything about Neutral Milk Hotel, you’ll know that my trying to write this is a futile exercise. I can not express in words what it was about Saturday night that made the girl sitting to my left weep into her handkerchief or what it was about a three-chord song that made the gentleman three rows in front of me give a standing ovation in the middle of the set.  I do know that we were all glad to be there an witness it, like lit-freaks watching Pynchon descend earthbound from his mysterious tower to read Gravity’s Rainbow aloud or chocoholics watching Willy Wonka emerge after years in the wilderness to reintroduce the world to chocolate.  We were there when Jeff Mangum crossed the Rubicon, transitioned from the sacred to the profane without losing his unexplainable power. We were there to celebrate, to be happy, to sing along loudly with a man strumming an acoustic guitar.