September 11, 2011
Rock Over Boston: Jeff Mangum | 9.9 - 9.10.2011
[Jeff Mangum at Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA, 9/9/11, Photo by Michael Piantigini. A few more here.]
It took some post-show YouTubery on my part to remember what a raucous and explosive live act Neutral Milk Hotel were (like in this one). In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was one of the last great front-to-back albums before the fragmentation of our listening experience via our love-hate relationships with our iPods - one of those albums that you develop a personal relationship with. This is prime "personal listening" era material: Jeff Mangum's deceptively simple music under precise imagery delivered by that powerful voice has a way of working its way through your headphones, down your ear canals, into your brain, and infecting your soul. So even then, seeing the band live was slightly disorienting to me. The transformation of Aeroplane's carefully arranged bedroom symphonies to a hippie rock juggernaut was unexpected.
But, just like that, it was all over. Neutral Milk Hotel's guiding visionary dropped out of sight, the meager rumors on the still sort-of nascent internet about his physical health, geographic location, and state of mind only added to his legend. His legacy secured by that last, perfect album not unlike Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. Like that other iconic recluse (reclusive, at least, from alt-rock eyes), and after a seemingly corresponding amount of time, Mangum's recent re-emergence is a welcome surprise.
Unlike Shields and My Bloody Valentine, who have yet again postponed the re-release of their classics, Mangum has it together enough to release an elaborate box set of NMH's two full lengths, a few singles, a bunch of unreleased material, and a couple of posters (details here). The advance promotion of this set may or may not be the impetus of this current spate of Mangum activity, but I, along with the rest of the sold out crowds at his Cambridge and Boston shows this weekend will gladly take it either way.
As I say above, Neutral Milk Hotel shows were a fairly spastic affair. Not better or worse than the albums, but certainly different. I thought these solo shows would bring these songs and their imagery back into focus when stripped of ornamentation and youthful exuberance. On the other hand, would there be too much lost in the distance between the performer and the songs - and the audience and the songs - leaving too much room for nostalgia to take over?
The answer over the two nights was a perfect balance of yes and no. The short, 55 minute sets were similar both nights - there are, after all, only two albums and a few singles to draw from - and Aeroplane unsurprisingly got the slight edge. "Oh Comely" opened both shows and provided an immediate transport to another place and time.
Mangum was greeted at Friday's show at Harvard's Sanders Theater with rapturous glee from an audience that transcended age and hipness. Mangum seemed humbled, but having fun. It still always feels weird to see this sort of pop idolatry directed at an artist such as him. People cheered, people cried, and at least one woman - hearing the opening chords of "Holland, 1945" - lept from her seat and danced, having the presence of mind to move away from the front row and into a corner to stay out of everyone's way. AND it was weird to hear such exuberant sing-alongs of these sometimes dark songs. I don't want to be presumptuous, but this doesn't seem like a crowd that regularly sings the words "I love you Jesus Christ" on a regular basis.
These old, ornate halls seemed like the perfect venues. Not in terms of status, but just that the precise acoustics of these theaters that were originally designed for an era before PA systems seemed ideal for Mangum's powerful voice and haunting songs. The Sanders show had some audio problems, however - apparently managing that space WITH a PA presented some challenges. So the brief microphone failure that led to Mangum crouched at the foot of the stage singing On Avery Island's "Where You'll Find Me Now" was one of those magic moments.
Saturday's show at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall was maybe 5% less rapturous, and it felt like Mangum got down to business more. That slight distance I felt between him and those songs on Friday maybe dissipated a little bit and it felt a little more like he was channeling them again. The cover slot, filled by Roky Erickson's "I Love The Living You" on Friday, was given over to an amazing reading of Daniel Johnston's legendary "True Love Will Find You In The End," both perfect A&R matches.
On both nights, we witnessed something rare in the wild: an honest-to-goodness encore. Mangum came out for the one song encore of the single "Engine," and left. The house lights came on, the PA playing exit music, but it had been too long (and the show to short) to let him go so easily. After about 10 minutes of standing ovation, Mangum returned in disbelief and sat at the foot of the stage (this time on a chair) and played the hey-wait-a-minute-I-can't-believe-he-didn't-already-play-this-tonight favorite "Two-Headed Boy." He seemed to try to head off the second encore on night two by playing BOTH songs in his first encore, but nuh-uh. House lights. PA. Exit music. 10 minutes: "Ferris Wheel On Fire."
The utter lack of new material seems to reinforce reports that Mangum just has no interest in it. And that's fine. He's given us plenty.
- Michael Piantigini
Neutral Milk Hotel: intertubes | Fan site