Like J.D. Salinger emerging from seclusion to read choice parts from “The Catcher in the Rye,” Jeff Mangum, founder of a revered cult band and composer of its equally venerated music, shuffled onto the stage of Liberty Hall on Friday and took a seat aside four acoustic guitars. As soon as the stage lights hit him, the sold-out crowd of more than 900 roared.
That status is due in large part to Magnum’s disappearance from the music scene not long after its release in 1998. His appearance in Lawrence was the first sighting of him for a host of Neutral Milk fans in attendance, some of whom, it seemed obvious, were probably still in middle-school when ”Aeroplane” was released.
He looked like someone costumed to represent the early to mid-‘70s counterculture: woolly thrift-shop sweater, a green military cap and a beard that split the difference between Billy Gibbons and Rasputin. Mangum was nursing a feisty cold at least, evidenced by the throat spray he administered at least once during the set, which lasted a few minutes longer than 60 minutes.
His voice sounded strong, when he sang. His banter between songs, however, was weak and inaudible, at least to those of us standing towards the back of the packed floor by the soundboard, where there was plenty of loud conversation going on much of the night. The worst occasion of that: during his dandy cover of Roky Erickson’s “I Love the Living You.”
He would deliver acoustic sketches of a dozen Neutral Milk songs, starting with “Oh Comely,” an “Aeroplane” track that was greeted with plenty of enthusiasm. Most songs generated similar outbursts of appreciation and recognition, but some prompted responses that were much louder and more joyous than others.
One of those was “Holland, 1945,” which ignited some hearty crowd participation. Another was the title track to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” which ignited a boisterous campfire sing-along. Then “Ghost” started some foot-stomping up in the balcony that sounded like percussive thunder from below and spread to the crowd on the floor.
For a guy nursing a scratchy throat who sang ornate pop songs as he strummed a few weathered acoustic guitars, Mangum managed to keep the mood in the room afloat and enflamed, excepting the 15 percent or so who had more important things to do than watch and listen, like talk.
Those boors aside, the prevailing vibe inside Liberty Hall on Friday had more to do with fans of a band gathering to hear some familiar songs. It had more to do with responding to something that has disappeared from not just music but pop culture and entertainment in general: mystique.
In an era where songs and videos go viral and “artists” or performers try to take advantage of their instant and molten popularity, Mangum has gone the other way. His retreat into his own world for a decade and a half has generated a mystery about him, an intense curiosity that drew nearly 1,000 people into a room just to be in his presence as he rendered before them primitive versions of songs that have become integral to their lives. Even through and above the trivial chit-chat, that connection between the audience and the creator and his creations was palpable.
Setilst: Oh Comely; The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1; The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts 2 and 3; Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone; Engine; Two-Headed Boy; Holland, 1945; I Love the Living You; Song Against Sex; In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; Naomi; Ghost; Two Headed Boy, Part 2.| Timothy Finn, The Star