As you might have already heard, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum played a secret set in Brooklyn over the weekend: “I’ve been thinking of playing some shows,” he told the small audience that turned up for his first solo headlining gig in, well, who knows? He went on to explain that he’d decided to play the Schoolhouse, a loft in Bushwick, just to see what it was like to play a full show again.
Vague invitations were e-mailed on Friday and Saturday to friends of the show’s organizers — Ben Goldberg of BaDaBing Records and the loft’s residents — containing draconian, bold-faced rules such as, “We will be downstairs with the list between 8 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Please do not be later than 8:30,” and “If your name isn’t already on the list, you won’t get in.”
When the doors opened, the 70 or so people who’d received golden tickets filed in, filling only about half of the large space. Most sat on the floor as we waited for the show to begin. At just after 9:30, an unassuming, red-flanneled Mangum took the stage, his long hair peeking out from under a newsboy cap. He opened with “Oh, Comely,” the crowd cheering every time he held a high note. He didn’t speak until mid-gig, before he played “Ghost,” a song he said he’d never played solo before. He invited everyone to sing the horn part.
He played ten songs total (see set list here; hear a few MP3s here), pulling from Aeroplane and On Avery Island, plus B-side “Engine,” one of the simplest and most heartbreaking songs in Mangum’s arsenal. He seemed comfortable while singing, but every time he spoke, it was punctuated with nervous laughter: “I don’t really know any jokes,” he said. “It’s been a while. Sorry!”
This may have been a one-off, but Mangum seemed genuinely touched by the reception. Afterward, he smiled and wandered into the crowd to chat, just another guy in a flannel shirt.