The six-hour benefit for underground New Zealand songwriter Chris Knox at Le Poisson Rouge on Thursday was indie-fundraising done right: all-star jams that made sense, meaty set lengths, a thoroughly worthwhile lineup, decidedly fan-oriented ticketing, and a stunning marquee name to sell out the room at $75 a ticket (and thin it out pleasantly midway through, after he performed).
In fact, it was really nice to hear Jeff Mangum sing five Neutral Milk Hotel songs on behalf of his hero Knox, who suffered a stroke last June. Sure, there was some open weeping (really) and a few Beavis-like nerdgasms, but mostly there was reverential giddiness, manifesting itself in a murmured set-long singalong that hummed and glowed like a natural phenomenon beneath Mangum’s booming voice and surreal melodrama.
Looking, strumming, and sounding almost exactly like he did 10 years ago, Mangum beamed sheepishly beneath his cap during the ovations. That he was sitting, putting him effectively out of view for most of the crowd, was immaterial. He closed his eyes and swayed unselfconsciously, delivering “Oh, Comely,” “A Baby For Pree,” “Two-Headed Boy Pt II” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” When he invited the crowd to sing on “Engine,” they just as quickly reverted to the murmur they’d kept to during the set.
Musically, the latter two hours of the evening–available for a $20 post-Mangum special at the door–belonged to various configurations of Kiwi pop-punk heroes The Clean and de facto American ambassadors to the New Zealand sound, Yo La Tengo. First, YLT’s Georgia Hubley added guitar to Clean drummer Hamish Kilgour’s drone-pulsing Mad Scene before her bandmates emerged to back Kilgour’s brother and Clean partner, David, for his own solo turn (including a gorgeous “Seemingly Stranded”). Yo La Tengo repeated the feat for Mac McCaughan, appearing as Portastatic, and turning in one of the evening’s disappointingly few Knox covers. (Indeed, the two-disc Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox is also a benefit album done right, plucking 36 songs from a criminally underrated three-decade catalog.)
“I’m comforted that so few people know who Chris is, that there are still people out there you’ve never heard of who can change your life,” YLT’s Ira Kaplan observed during his band’s four-song set (joined by David). What remained by the time The Clean themselves finished “Getting Older,” a little after one am, was the sense of the small-town/worldwide music community missing during the neck-craning of Mangum’s delighted appearance. “The greatest band in the world is up next,” said Kaplan, announcing The Clean — and, indeed, Hubley made her way quickly to the front row. And if people missed out, then that’s just what happens.