May 07, 2010 at 04:01 PM EDT

Image Credit: Will WestbrookNone of the 500 or so people who bought $75 tickets for the Chris Knox benefit show held at N.Y.C.’s Le Poisson Rouge last night were quite sure what we were getting into. We knew that a motley group of musicians and comedians would take the stage to raise money for Knox, the New Zealand indie-pop hero who suffered a stroke last summer. One of them, stunningly, would be Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel — a man as private as he is brilliant, who has performed very, very rarely since 2001. (He’s pictured above, second from the left with the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel in 1998.) Beyond that? Zip. The event’s organizers refused to provide the performers’ order or start times beforehand. Mangum’s “very short acoustic set” could be coming at any time between 6:30 P.M. and 1 A.M.

Standing in line outside Le Poisson Rouge before the show, I wondered if Mangum wouldn’t turn up at the very end of the night, play “Sign the Dotted Line,” the stirring Knox cover he contributed to last year’s Stroke tribute CD, and disappear again. I found myself thinking of an old Jewish folk song, “Dayenu“: Seeing Mangum sing even just that one tune would have been enough for me. So I went downstairs and settled in for the first few performers. Some of them, like TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and singer-songwriter Sharon van Etten, were quite good. Out of nowhere around 8:35 P.M., comic Rachel Feinstein ended her raunchy stand-up routine with a casual, “Okay, Jeff Mangum is next!” Suddenly the room got very loud.

It got even louder a few minutes later when Mangum walked onstage. He looked more or less exactly as we all remembered him: plaid work shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, disheveled Prince Valiant haircut tucked under a cap. Greeting the crowd with a shy wave, Mangum knelt to adjust his microphone, then sat down by the side of the stage. “Anyway, thanks everyone for coming,” he said softly. And then he was singing. He opened with “Oh Comely,” from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Everyone fell silent to hear his sad, cryptic, beautiful words. We could tell at once that Mangum’s voice, that extraordinary wail, has lost no power since the ’90s. He strummed slowly and breathed deep to hit intense, sustained vocal notes.

“Oh Comely” is over eight minutes long, a “very short acoustic set” in itself. The applause afterward was deafening. For all we knew, again, we were cheering his final number. Miraculously, we weren’t. Mangum went right into “A Baby for Pree,” from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1996 debut, On Avery Island. He shut his eyes and strummed faster for this one. I involuntarily closed my eyes, too, carried away by the emotion of the song, then opened them to make sure I didn’t miss another moment. Toward the end, he slipped into the heartbreaking chorus and outro from “Where You’ll Find Me Now,” the next song on On Avery Island. A sweet, genuine grin appeared on Mangum’s face when he he heard the crowd roar as he finished the tune. Next was “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” from Aeroplane again. “And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle,” he sang. “God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” I spotted Kyp Malone off by the other side of the stage, gazing up in abject wonder like the rest of us.

Finally, Mangum closed his set with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea‘s title track. The crowd swayed and, though others among us shushed them, some couldn’t help themselves from quietly singing along. When he got to the bridge where the brass section comes in on the record, Mangum sang the part himself, “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-deeee-dee-deeee.” “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is a gorgeous song about love and mortality, uniquely moving in any context. Last night, hearing Mangum sing those powerful words — “And one day we will die, and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea/But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see” — my eyes began to fill with tears.

We cheered and screamed and clapped til our lungs and arms were sore when Mangum rose and left. After a minute or so, with the crowd’s volume undiminished, he actually came back for an encore of “Engine,” a Neutral Milk Hotel B-side that he’s played at some of his few brief appearances in recent years. This time he openly encouraged us to keep singing along. “It sounds beautiful,” Mangum said, smiling. “Please keep going.” Given the opportunity, I would have said the same to him. I certainly respect his privacy, and if he doesn’t feel comfortable performing in public for whatever reason, that’s his right. But wow, does he still have something special to offer.

I felt bad for the bands that had to go on after that unbelievable mid-show stunner. They tried their best, particularly Yo La Tengo, who joined or backed several other artists before their own set, and Saturday Night Live jokester John Mulaney, who was ten times funnier last night than he was riffing on Girl Scout cookies on TV last month. But really, who could possibly follow an act like Mangum’s?

Were any of you lucky enough to be there last night? If not, console yourself with the shaky YouTube clips that have already surfaced. Or share your favorite Neutral Milk Hotel memories in the comments below.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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