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Jeff Mangum at Rialto Theatre, Friday, March 29

Jeff Mangum, former and future frontman of late '90s indie rockers Neutral Milk Hotel, means a lot to a lot of people. With nary a peep from him since the turn of the century, his silence has been as mythical as his music. A couple of generations later, Mangum is viewed in some circles in the same way as, say, Syd Barrett or Nick Drake: an artist whose art destroyed him. Of course, this only adds further intrigue to his followers who mostly discovered Neutral Milk Hotel's two albums after the fact.

Mangum, who appeared appropriately weathered from years in some mysterious abyss, unassumingly walked onstage to reverent applause, sat down with his acoustic guitar, and sang some Neutral Milk Hotel songs. He was in fine form throughout, intoning meditations on death, sex, self-loathing, and varying combinations of all three as the audience shuddered at every vocal tic and mumbled whisper. Mangum, possessor of an especially expressive voice, weaved in and out of his idiosyncratic melodies, exorcising every last bit of pain and longing in songs like "Song Against Sex" and "Two-Headed Boy." Almost exactly 45 minutes later, including the obligatory encore, Jeff Mangum was gone once again.

As the house lights briskly illuminated Mangum's farewell, the puzzle began to solve itself. The ticket prices that hovered in the $30-dollar range, the $100 vinyl box set being sold in the lobby, and the absurdly short set length all smacked of intentions of monetary gain, and little else. The recent announcement of Neutral Milk Hotel's upcoming fall reunion tour revealed Jeff Mangum to be a crass businessman, expanding his profit margin by selling out his fans. If he were Britney Spears doing a comeback tour, the scenario would be perfectly logical. But Mangum is not a pop singer; he is an artiste whose music changed and shaped many lives under the guise of honesty and integrity. He desecrated his own parables by turning his work into a 45-minute advertisement for his upcoming Neutral Milk Hotel tour. If he needed the money, he could have licensed his songs for Target or Volkswagen commercials. But he didn't. He disrespectfully pimped out his music to the people to whom it holds untold worth, belittling his audience and reducing them to common johns, impersonally serviced in place of the implicit promise of enlightenment.

More by Joshua Levine

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