Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Concert Review - Jeff Mangum at the Athenaeum Theatre, February 8th, 2012

"God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life."

Neutral Milk Hotel wasn't just a band, it was an experience, a shared secret, a way of processing the world, an alternate reality, all based on the beautiful, fractured, naive worldview and lyrics of one Jeff Mangum. His decision to disband the group and subsequent nervous breakdown in 1999 left many of his fans feeling like they were living the above quote from "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2". Since then, the band's work has taken on a mythical place in the indie cannon, bringing in millions of new fans to join in the waiting for the musical deity.

The cult success of Neutral Milk Hotel and especially their masterpiece, 1998's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea makes total sense - it's music that's warm, openhearted and almost painfully joyous but its production, instrumentation and ramshackle lyrics are so off-kilter and interpretable that they feel intensely personal. Personally, I remember first hearing Aeroplane while sitting at a late-night bonfire and being immediately staggered by its power to make me feel transported elsewhere through sound. Most Neutral Milk Hotel fans have a similar story. The music's odd appeal is intense among those so inclined, but it's got enough strange elements to ensure that it has little chance of ever going fully mainstream.

With this in mind, the news late last year that Jeff Mangum, after playing only a handful of dates over the course of a decade, would be touring again was huge. Most of my music friends were glued to their computers the day tickets went on sale and have been crossing the days off their calendar's since then. This wasn't just a show - it was a homecoming and celebration. 

Neutral Milk Hotel was part of the famed Elephant 6 collective and their independent (even from the larger independent scene), oddball spirit could be felt everywhere last night from the openers to the venue. Rather than play the standard indie venues, the show was held in dance and theater venue the Athenaeum - a perfect choice. Rather than swill lite beer while jostling for position near the stage, I was able to sip wine in a cafe area while waiting for the openers, a nice touch. Rather than neon MGD signs, the stage was surrounded by decorative plaster and scenes from ancient Greece. Rather than the wall-of-sound noise levels, everything was toned down, focusing on the strength of the songs themselves and the theatre's own wonderful acoustics. It was a concert experience apart from the usual, as befitted the performer.

Opening was a trio of Elephant 6 artists, two of whom had played in Neutral Milk Hotel (the massively neck-bearded Scott Spillane, also of the Gerbils and Laura Carter of Elf Power) as well as Elf Power lead singer Andrew Rieger. Their set was a loose, subdued jam session consisting of songs by each artist and their bands, a few well-chosen covers and plenty of instrument switching. Percussion was supplied by wire brushes and a single bongo, accented by two guitars which might be strummed, picked, bowed or played with a beer bottle slide. Spillane and Rieger mostly traded off singing duties, with the former playing some Gerbils hits, powerful Chris Knox and Frank Sinatra covers as well as several lyrically evocative new pieces which my friend rightly pointed out were strongly reminiscent of Mountain Goats at their peak. Rieger played mostly Elf Power material but also trotted out a great version of Randy Newman's "In Germany Before The War", which often gets a morosely somber treatment. It was a set heavy on charm, songcraft and deft atmospherics that was well-received even given it's nearly sixty minute length.

After a brief intermission (with curtains closed, mind you, no roadies to be seen), the man himself finally took the stage, sat down surrounded by four guitars and, without introduction, began the slow strum of "Oh Comely". Just as he did this, I reached for my pocket to silence my phone and, naturally, spilled red wine all across the leg of my pants. Silently cursing my oafishness in the harshest possible terms, I left my second-row seat to find the bathroom. As I applied my patented spill pit crew technique to quickly wash out the stain, I noticed something - I was the only one in the bathroom. Or by the concessions. Indeed, the only one NOT in my seat listening with rapt attention to Jeff, whose voice carried wonderfully through the still theatre, allowing me to not miss a note. I've only ever seen two solo performers able to achieve that level of awe from an audience before and, let me tell you, it's a sight to behold.

Mangum mentioned that it was "good to be back playing these songs the way I wrote them - alone on a guitar" and the performances revealed just how completely he imagined his works even without a band backing him. He hummed horn and accordion parts whenever necessary and I'm sure those in the audience were able to practically hear in their the instrumental parts that he didn't. He played all three parts of "The King Of Carrot Flowers" as one continuous song, which was revelatory without the instrumental interludes, showing the song as an oddly unified suite. On "Song Against Sex", his aggressive strumming was miles from the fuzzed out album version, instead showcasing his ability to attack and acoustic guitar with punk fury. Meanwhile Mangum wrought all the sighing beauty of the original version of "Engine" with just his voice and guitar.

Mangum isn't exactly voluble in front of the mic between songs, but the J.D. Salinger of indie rock didn't exactly play the recluse either. The crowd peppered him with loving odes and friendly questions. When someone asked "Jeff, does your dream girl exist?" He laughed and demurred, offering "that's my trip."  Jeff did seem genuinely awed by the reaction to his work and the near reverence of the fans, repeatedly asking the crowd to sing along. This led to spirited versions of "Holland, 1945" and "Two-Headed Boy", set highlights both, especially given the Athanaeum's excellent acoustics which seemed designed for such group singalongs. Jeff also trotted his Elephant 6 openers with trumpet, oboe, accordion and other instruments for "Ghost", "The Fool" and closer "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea", which gave just a taste of brassy exuberance of the full-band Neutral Milk Hotel experience.

As people milled in the auditorium afterwards I could hear numerous groups of people having the same conversation that my friends and I were having. We gushed about the show, mobbed the merch table and appreciated the posters, generally reveling in having just experienced something that few people have seen since the waning days of the Clinton administration. We'd seen Jeff singing some of the most affecting songs in the alternative cannon live before our very eyes. It was a bucket list experience that we'd all crossed off together. Now, like congregants buzzing after communion, we engaged in chatty fellowship. Our faith rewarded, the night brought to mind another line from Aeroplane's closing song.

"God is a place where some holy spectacle lies."

Oh Comely
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 1, 2 & 3
A Baby For Pree
Engine [Download]
Holland, 1945
Song Against Sex [Download]
Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2
April 8th
Two-Headed Boy [Download]
The Fool
Gardenhead (Leave Me Alone)
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea


  1. Great review. I was there too and the show was just beyond words. You don't happen to know the name of the Chris Knox song that Scott Spillane and Co. covered, do you? I can't find a set-list anywhere for that part of the show.

  2. Glad you liked it! I'm pretty sure that it was "I Will Cry" there's a bootleg of Scott, Laura and Andrew's set here that would confirm that.