One is a reclusive, fabled singer/songwriter that Twin Cities indie-rock fans haven't seen for 13 years. The other one comes every year, but never like this. Both played rare shows outside their cult-revered bands Saturday in Minneapolis.
Jeff Mangum at the State Theatre
Mangum is alive and well and actually exists, all things his 2,000 audience members might have doubted before Saturday.
Moved to the State after his fan base proved too big for the Pantages, the hour-long set didn't exactly make up for lost time. But the fawning, fanatical crowd is likely to remember it for a long time.
Mangum, 41, bowed out following his band Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 sophomore album "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," a dramatic, conceptual folk-rock collection that became highly influential and perhaps just a wee bit overhyped. It was certainly stellar enough to support one theory that Mangum feared he could never top it.
Saturday's all-acoustic set stripped away the musical layering as well as some of the mythologizing surrounding "In the Aeroplane," which made up the bulk of the 14-song set list. Instead of a Brian Wilson/Syd Barrett display of madcap genius, the show came off like a John Denver/Cat Stevens folky campfire song fest.
"The best way to thank me is to sing along," Mangum said two songs in when a guy yelled out a passionate "thank you." Fans fulfilled his request in "Holland, 1945," a wordy, harrowing, Anne Frank-inspired tune that made for odd but impressive audience accompaniment.
Things turned tent-revivalistic later when he invited the crowd nearer the stage before "Two-Headed Boy." His approachability was the most surprising thing about the show. When a woman yelled out a request to "hang out," he quipped, "I do kind of keep to myself."
Mangum still had the intense, powerful, albeit nasal tenor voice that made him almost-famous. He sang with a piercing resonance in the murderous epic "Oh Comely." Some of the "In the Aeroplane" songs dragged without the full band arrangements. One-time NMH participants Laura Carter and Scott Spillane (who played an opening set) joined Mangum on the show's musical high point, "Ghost." It gave hope for a full band tour at some point. For now, though, fans are content knowing Mangum himself is not a ghost.
Craig Finn at the Triple Rock
He spiked the songs with the same dramatic hand gestures and sign posts from his Twin Cities youth. The most impressive thing about Finn's sold-out solo gig, though, was how much it varied from his full-time band the Hold Steady.
Finn, 40, was just a week into touring with the four Texas musicians who played on his solo debut, "Clear Heart, Full Eyes." He and the boys were still feeling each other out but certainly had a great feel for the album's atmospheric urban twang. Guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson (from Austin's Phosphorescent) added a perfectly eerie pedal-steel backdrop to "Apollo Bay" and "Jackson" and played hell-raising leads in "New Friend Jesus." Like the Hold Steady, the whole band had a fun, organic spirit.
However, the standout moments were when Finn -- who played acoustic guitar all night -- truly stripped things down.
He unveiled three new songs mid-set by himself, highlighted by "The Dudes From St. Paul," a John Prine-ian amusing spin on our capital city's dangers. He also encored alone with another new one that, along with the band's finale "Not Much Left of Us," showed an evocative Springsteen storytelling side not even so evident in the Hold Steady's E Street-like musings.
Like Bruce, Craig will probably always be better with his usual gang. But who knows what else can happen outside that box?