Jeff Mangum, the reclusive artist behind seminal indie folk band Neutral Milk Hotel, spoke just twice to fans gathered at Coachella's Outdoor stage for a rare performance Sunday. Once, at the beginning of the show, to implore the eager audience to resist the urge to immortalize it on their smartphones. And again at the end, offering a quick and modest thanks.
In between those two meager moments, Neutral Milk Hotel, which has not released new music since 1998's celebrated album "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," delivered a performance that was warm, intimate and sincere, manifesting the collective dreams of an awed crowd.
"I feel like my whole life has been building up to this point," one typical attendee was overheard saying just before the show. "You make my life complete!" called out another, just after a rousing rendition of the title track from "Aeroplane."
Mangum, looking as if he were on a break from his real job (at a bait and tackle shop) in an army cap, flannel shirt and curtain of unruly facial hair, entered the stage alone and kicked things off with a stripped down acoustic version of "Two-Headed Boy." His voice – plaintive, searching and slightly nasally – sounded as it did on record despite years of extremely sporadic performances.
The packed and exceptionally polite crowd sang every word of virtually every song, palms outstretched as if in worship.
Joined by a five-piece band including original members Scott Spillane, Julian Koster and Jeremy Barnes, the group had the easy rapport of a family band reunited over the holidays. Koster was the perennial manchild in a floppy blue beanie and green pajama pants, exuding youthful energy as he bounded between instruments including bass, banjo and steel saw. Spillane, on trumpet and French horn, was grandfatherly in a bushy, white beard.
"Holland, 1945," "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1," "Rubby Bulbs" and "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" carried the evening show into sunset.
As things wound down, and just before the assaultive electronic blasts of a far-away Calvin Harris set rocked the festival grounds, someone turned to a friend and paused to marvel at the moment. "Wasn't that just wonderful?"