The correct pronunciation of Jeff Mangum’s last name feels counterintuitive. You want to call him Magnum, as in Magnum P.I., but doing that would be a slip-up. So the poet who introduced the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel on Friday night at BAM had a tip for saying Mangum’s name the way it was intended: “Dude,” he said, “chew a stick of man gum.”
This was the second performance in Mangum’s three-night stretch at the upscale venue in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. The audience sat, and so did Mangum, plopping into a center-stage chair in the middle of a circle of acoustic guitars. It looked like he was wearing exactly what he wore when he played Manhattan’s Town Hall back in October: dark green button down, khaki pants, work boots, black pageboy hat—like a hip Brooklyn dad or an REI employee. He opened with “Two-Headed Boy Part 2,” and some in the audience responded with yelps of approval. The shouts would’ve come regardless of the opening song choice; it was the sound of Mangum’s voice, somewhere between a reed instrument and a bleating goat, in a live setting, rather than piping from computer speakers, that set off these calls of enthusiasm.
Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel released only two albums before they disbanded in the late 1990s, the second of these albums being the masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. A lot of people had waited a very, very long time to hear Mangum sing those songs live, and the expectations for that at-long-last delivery were understandably high. You wanted Mangum not only to take his time with your favorites but to share in that cathartic moment that occurs when you finally see one of your favorite musicians performing in the flesh. But Mangum casually zipped through many of those songs, streaming from “King Of Carrot Flowers Part I” to “Part 2 And 3” before you even had a chance to process that they’d been played.
Most of the songs on Friday came from Aeroplane, but it was on “Engine,” from the single release of “Holland, 1945,” that Mangum welcomed Julian Koster—of the night’s opening band, the Music Tapes, and a former member of Neutral Milk Hotel—to add another instrument to the mix. Koster went with the saw; later, two other Music Tapes joined Mangum on “April 8th” with horns. Mangum’s voice and guitar have always been the prime components of the Neutral Milk Hotel sound body, but those additional instruments—a muted trumpet, an accordion, a French horn, the saw—give the songs the appendages they need to stretch. Nowhere was this clearer than on the encore’s closing number, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” With the help of that quavering saw howl and the victorious horn suspension, Mangum and his makeshift band reached all the way to the ceiling.