Jacob was lucky enough to catch Jeff Mangum Live at the Dupont Theater this past Tuesday, and here are some of his thoughts…
I was nervous.
Not because I didn’t know what to expect (anybody who has heard Live at Jittery Joe’s knows that Mangum’s performances are just as emotionally wrenching as his records), but because this was a show high up on my own personal “Bucket List of Live Events to Attend Before I Die”. I never thought I would get a chance to see the former frontman and mastermind behind Neutral Milk Hotel, whose In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is arguably my favorite album of all time. His well-documented self-exile following Aeroplane is now legendary and, before last year’s string of dates, it seemed as if we’d never get to see Mangum on stage with his guitar again. Now that it was here, staring me in the face after so many years, I secretly hoped that the damaged singer would live up to the endless idolization.
Tall Firs were probably as good a choice for an opener as you could ask for. Their ambient bedroom guitar pop filled the spacious, one-hundred-year-old, double-balconied theater effortlessly, as the two Maryland buddies played in a manner that made it hard to decipher where one’s guitar part began and the other’s ended. In between songs, singer/guitarists Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan proved themselves more than amiable; a feat that is actually quite impressive as they (and everyone else in the auditorium) knew that Tall Firs were probably only going to be a fleeting afterthought once the night was over. When they weren’t incorporating a standing harp into their sound, the two joked and shared tales that inspired a few of the songs (including one uncomfortable aside about others’ fuck noises invading personal sorrow), proving that not only could they make intimate, echoing guitar music, but they might actually be fun to hang out with as well.
Once the Tall Firs’ set ended, the two quickly gathered their two racks of electric guitars, amp, bank of pedals and standing harp and quickly cleared the stage so all that remained was a single rug, a rack of acoustic guitars, a chair and two microphones. There was only a short break between sets, as the light from the overhead chandelier was quickly dimmed and Jeff Mangum appeared from a darkened stage left.
“Can you turn down the stage lights please?” These were the words that the bearded, greasy-haired, sweater-donning JD Salinger of the indie music world greeted the auditorium with before quickly tuning his guitar and hollering out “Holland, 1945″. The crowd was ecstatic, shifting toward the edges of their seats and mouthing every word that Mangum sang, a quiet timidness surrounding their actions; as if they were afraid any sort of outburst might send Magnum back into the wilderness of Athens, Georgia. But without skipping a beat (nor saying another word), the troubadour slowed his strum and began “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2″.
And that’s when it hit me; the unknowable wave of cathartic emotion that Mangum’s music unexpectedly brings and can just move one to tears. There’s an almost Pavlovian quality to the way Magnum composes, as if he knows just the right combination of notes and emoted wailing that can bring anybody to their knees in an instant. If you’ve ever read his lyric sheets, you know that what he’s bellowing is neigh incomprehensible. Even when paired with the unusual legends that came along with Aeroplane (including his near obsession with Anne Frank and the seamy dreams that followed), it’s hard to even know just what the hell this strange man is singing about. But nearly everything he’s ever written contains enough soul and that intangible something that transcends mere language and hits you right where it hurts.
After the first two songs, it was as if Mangum could sense the crowd’s slight unease and began his dialogue. What the singer revealed was a very guarded but warm nature; a guy who simply thanked us all for “coming out and listening to his songs” and invited the audience to sing along on four separate occasions. Mangum doled out all of the fan-favorites, save for ignoring the cries of “Phil Spector!”; code for his cover of the The Paris Sisters‘ “I Love How You Love Me“. When the encore of Aeroplane’s title track came, a wave of the floor crowd left their seats and rushed the stage, gathering at the its edge as Mangum regaled us with his last song for the evening.
In short, as far as “Bucket List” experiences go, I had nothing to complain about.
Two-Headed Boy, Part II
Song Against Sex
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part I
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part II
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part III
A Baby for Pree
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Encore)