Yesterday evening, I had the privilege of seeing something too few people have since 1998. I got to watch and to listen to a man who had all but vanished from music, from society, Jeff Mangum the leader and creative force behind Neutral Milk Hotel. Ryan Lambert’s phenomenal article from 2011 explores the praise, expectations, disappearance, and eventual return of Jeff Mangum. It’s well worth reading, to fully grasp the enormity of the singer’s new and upcoming appearances.
Apperances from Mangum continue to be a big deal. Even though he embarked on tours in 2011 and 2012, there is always a fear that the Neutral Milk Hotel leader’s presence is fleeting, that we could once again “lose” the creator of one of the greatest albums ever recorded. An over 10 year gap from a true musical force is terrifying.
So two months ago, when Jeff Mangum’s latest set of appearances was announced, it was a simple decision to buy in. The reward came last night.
The concert was set in the gorgeous Southern Theatre, an astounding venue and a near-perfect setting for the acoustic work of Mangum. The opening acts also took advantage of the location. Briars of North America was a four-man group that set the tone and gave their folk sound a twist by injecting a quiet, distorted electric guitar and occasional french horn into the mix. Tall Firs continued the atmospherics. The pair of guitarists traded leading vocal duties as their quiet tunes ruminated on death, suicide, and money.
Then came Jeff Mangum. He walked onstage to rapturous, nearly maniacal applause. The roar from the crowd only grew as the singer swept right into a remarkable version of “Oh Comely.” From there, this was the only song that featured near-silence from the crowd mid-tune (more on that later), and the shocking, almost inhuman vocal ability of Mangum split through the room. His recorded vocal nuances became grand instrumental phrases that reverberated throughout the space. Changes from quiet to loud, low to high were awe inspiring.
Following his first song, Mangum then encouraged the crowd to come out of their seats, to stand and fill in closer to the stage. Later in the show he admitted to enjoying this kind of closeness, the “underground” sort of audience he attracted and making the theatre more intimate helped advance that feeling.
From that moment onward, it was a group effort. Every song became a singalong (or clap-along or stomp-along) and at least one fanatic listener found their favorite moment with every point on the setlist. As an odd compliment, the performances were meticulous and precise. This is important because he recreated the established near-perfect album music with care, adding more immediacy and power in the live setting but preserving the spirit of every composition. Indeed, Mangum spent a minute tuning guitars between each song and apologized for a cold that he claimed was holding him back. Thankfully, there was no noticeable impediment. He was on fire.
It’s difficult to select any highlight from the set. I had goosebumps hearing “Holland, 1945” and encore song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” but those two pieces are my very favorite NMH songs. For others in attendance, the reaction to “Naomi” was one of pure elation. I personally enjoyed the shocked elation of a nearby attendee who made a successful request (“Oh Sister”). Mangum’s brief but amusing rapport with his adoring fans also added a charm to the man who seemed at times uncomfortable with the live setting.
Perhaps the most insightful back-and-forth came near the end of the set. A skinny, sheepish-looking young man finally worked up the bravery to make his thoughts known. “Do you have any new songs?” After a grin and some dodging the subject from Mangum (“Well, there might be something in the vault”) and a bit of cheek from the audience (“Keep tuning your guitar if you’re working on a new record!”), the bearded singer arrived at an interesting conclusion. He looked up from the pegs of his guitars and said, “I think I’ve said everything I wanted to say.”
It’s a fitting observation from a man who both graced the world with one of its best recordings and then all but fell off the planet. I also can’t help but agree with Ryan Lambert’s concluding thoughts, so I’ll quote them here:
“…if Mangum is happy emerging from wherever it is he goes off to very, very occasionally, touring with only these deservedly beloved songs and not putting out new music for the rest of his career, then we should be fine with it. I’ll show up every time.”
Jeff Mangum is a musical treasure and his performance was one I’ll cherish. If you get a chance, go see him. You’ll be thankful.