Dallas "So, you guys gonna sing with me?"
The roar greeting singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum's query Sunday night at the Majestic Theater was a clear affirmative. The rapturous cacophony also underlined his stature as one of music's most beloved, if not exactly high-profile, talents. After a pair of critically adored, but commercially inert records under the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel (including 1998's seminal From the Aeroplane Over the Sea), Mangum abruptly retreated from the spotlight, surfacing sporadically, but rarely performing in public and releasing next to no new music.
Whatever the motivation, the 42-year-old Louisiana native ended his absence from the stage earlier this year with a month-long tour that brought him to Dallas for the first time in eons Sunday. Clad in copper-colored pants and a brown plaid shirt, sporting a lengthy beard streaked with gray and a simple cap pulled low over his eyes, the unassuming Mangum looked for all the world like a vagrant who just happened to wander on stage (indeed, his set began with no fanfare; Mangum walked out with the house lights still up and simply took his seat).
But then, he strummed his acoustic guitar, opened his mouth and his powerful tenor tore out of his chest, sustaining lengthy notes at impressive volume and filling the beautiful room with his peculiar lyrics and vivid melodies. Mangum betrayed no rust over the course of his fleeting, hour-long set, which pulled heavily from Neutral Milk Hotel's pair of albums, 1996's On Avery Island and Sea.
Opening with the expansive Oh, Comely and even breezing through a cover of Roky Erikson's I Love the Living You, Mangum couldn't keep the smile from creeping onto his face as the nearly sold-out room exploded in applause and lusty cheers at the conclusion of each song. "It's like being [home] in Athens, Ga., with a couple thousand friends over," he observed halfway through.
What was most striking about the evening was the sense of community Mangum and his songs engendered. With a strict no photography or video policy in place (and the Majestic staff quietly, but effectively, enforcing it), the room wasn't dotted with the light of smartphones capturing the show for posterity. Instead, the audience was experiencing the music together, audibly singing along (and often, at Mangum's insistence, taking over completely) and getting lost in the moment happening before them.
Hearing these idiosyncratic compositions stripped down and performed with an intense focus -- taken out of the headphones, dusted off and brought into the light, as it were -- cast the Neutral Milk Hotel material in a new light, but also reinforced how far ahead of the curve Mangum was in the late '90s. Left-of-center folk music is pervasive a decade later (here's lookin' at you, the Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, et al), but watching Mangum tear into his material felt like witnessing an entire genre being forged in a crucible.
Whether this spurt of touring will result in any new recordings from Mangum remains to be seen. Perhaps he's undertaking the endeavor just to prove to himself that he can. What is very clear from Sunday's performance is that a hungry audience remains, eager to reconnect with the man and his music and willing to hear whatever comes next. All the proof one needed was to hear them sing.