The Cult of Jeff Mangum was in full force at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night. Anxious fans waited outside for up to 10 hours, eagerly awaiting the appearance of a band that released one of the most critically-acclaimed indie albums of all time in 1998 only to split up the following year. The mythology surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel is fervent. Despite its tiny oeuvre — two albums and two EPs — the band is heralded as gods among men, effectively making its reclusive lead singer, Jeff Mangum, its Jesus Christ.
And Jesus Christ, can these guys perform. The sold-out show came in the middle of a huge reunion tour, and the Madison tickets sold out in two days, so those lucky enough to have filled the Orpheum to capacity stood in the giant crowd with a hushed anticipation.
Openers Elf Power — like the headliners, a part of the Elephant 6 collective — shared a similar style to Neutral Milk Hotel, and their freewheeling, lo-fi aesthetic flooded the theater with positive vibes. The band left the stage and the crowd grew restless during a half-hour set change. Finally, a voice came over the speakers, asking the audience to refrain from taking pictures of the band throughout the performance. It was a message that would be repeated by Jeff Mangum midway through their performance. He didn’t want people taking pictures. He didn’t want people on their phones. He wanted everyone to be in the moment, to experience the music together.
This collective experience flooded with euphoria when Mangum walked onstage alone, carrying an acoustic guitar and sporting a long beard, a hat that shielded his eyes from the spotlights and a sweater that can only be described as magnificent. He launched into In An Aeroplane Over the Sea’s “Two Headed Boy,” and the crowd was not sheepish when it came to singing along. “I am listening to hear where you are!” the crowd shouted. To an outsider unfamiliar with the band, the scene might have appeared as some sort of strange, cultish party. But to us diehard fans, it was confirmation of everything that makes the band great — strange lyrics sung in unpretentious, unpolished voices — and the crowd was happy to contribute their own voices. As the song drew to a close, the band made its way out and segued into the emotional instrumental “The Fool.” Accordions and brass instruments were in full force and played with the same kind of emotional intensity that makes Aeroplane such a vulnerable, evocative listen.
The band was careful to choose from their entire discography, picking songs from their EPs and their first, underrated album, On Avery Island. While the audience sang loudest to the Aeroplane cuts, the crowd still happily took in deeper cuts like “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and “Engine” — the final song of the night — with smiles and bobbing heads.
Mangum and the rest of the band looked truly grateful for the audience’s positive reception of their tunes. “Thank you,” Mangum would often repeat, his hand placed on top of his heart. Multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster — who wore a hat that made him look like a character from “Adventure Time” — jumped around onstage with a huge smile plastered across his face. He effortlessly switched instruments and played all of them with gusto, especially his “singing saw,” which provides the strange backbone for many of Neutral Milk Hotel’s songs. (He seems like a legitimately awesome guy, too, as he bought coffee for the people waiting in line in the cold Madison temperatures.)
It was a beautiful night. It’s a blessing to have Neutral Milk Hotel back playing music, especially considering so many fans thought they’d never play again. The band’s Madison show was a testament to everything that makes them awesome: above all, it was just plain fun.