Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Coast To Coast With Jeff Mangum

23 APRIL, 2012
There was a heightened sense of excitement in the air for Jeff Mangum's L.A. arrival.  Mangum used the occasion of his Coachella appearance to add on some western dates, including Monday evening's appearance at the refurbished downtown landmark, the Orpheum Theatre.
It's been quite a re.emergence for the artist who spent a dozen years off the radar(*) before last fall's mini-tour and showcase at ATP's 'I'll Be Your Mirror' festival, followed by a visit to the Occupy Wall St site.  In the new year, he visited Europe, and rolled out to the Midwest for a handful of shows.
*(his silence was broken with a 2010 appearance at a benefit for Chris Knox )

As it has gone for his shows, a strict no photo/no video policy has been in place, and it has been very effective in heightening the intimacy of the shows, as well as forcing one to focus on the matters at hand.  Andrew, Laura and Scott once again opened up, serving up songs from Elf Power and various covers, including a taut reading of hometown hero Randy Newman's "In Germany Before The War".  The trio switched instruments with abandon, jelling in to a more cohesive identity than when their stint with Mangum began.  They extended their duties over the course of the tour to backing up Mangum at various points in his set.

When the moment came, Mangum was sharp and edgy, benefiting from the run of shows by essaying his tunes tightly and almost hurriedly, overtly exhorting the audience at numerous times to sing with him.  His humorous aside about not needing a bright spot on him was apparently too subtle, for he disappeared off stage at the end of a song, and the light immediately dimmed.  When he came back, he seemed a little less tense, and the night proceeded apace.  He has kept the cornerstone songs such as "King Of Carrot Flowers", "Two Headed Boy", "A Baby For Pree", and "In The Aeroplane, Over The Sea" in his set, along with the ace Daniel Johnston cover, "True Love Will Find You In The End", but expanded to include the seldom heard "Little Birds", (described as "the song that did my head in").
All in all, a winning night with an Indie legend.  One hopes only that he has found his peace with performing and making music.

08 AUGUST, 2011
The First Unitarian Church in Burlington, VT dates back to 1816, and as a venue, seemed to have the necessary gravitas for the evening's event: the return to active duty of Jeff Mangum.  As a warmup to being the special guest at the Portishead curated All Tomorrow's Parties 'I'll Be Your Mirror' festival in Asbury Park, NJ in October, Mangum scheduled a series of five warmup dates along the eastern seaboard into Canada, with this being the first.  Circumstances had me planning a trip to N.Y. and CT. around this date, so i went for it, and somehow got a ticket.  The trip ended up falling together as planned, and Monday found me driving across upstate NY, through the Adirondacks, catching a ferry across Lake Champlain, and finally arriving in beautiful Burlington, VT with a few hours to spare.
The church filled quickly, and while I caught a pew in the front left corner, with only 500 tickets sold, there really wasn't a bad seat.  Tall Firs and Andrew, Scott and Laura acquitted themselves well in opening duties, and the crowd was well behaved but tense, awaiting the grand moment.

For those not directly acquainted with Mr. Mangum, the Cliff Notes version is of a cult figure who recorded two LP's under the name Neutral Milk Hotel, the second of which, In The Aeroplane, Over The Sea, is heralded as a cult classic, a singular work that refracts an obsession with Anne Frank into a commentary on humanity.  After the release of which: nothing.  Mangum retreated from the pressure of the business, involved himself only with friends' projects, and for all intents and purposes, walked away from the game.
Which hopefully gives some background to the baited breath of the audience...what would he play? band or solo? what psychic frame was he in?  Neutral Milk Hotel in their productive days did not reach a vast audience, so I think it somewhat safe to say that very few folks in the house had any idea what they were getting into...

It only took one song to allay the fears.  Mangum opened up with arguably the most difficult song in his canon, "Oh Comely", and proceeded to hold the audience in the palm of his hand for close to ten minutes, performing alone on guitar, sitting on a chair, supple of voice and in total command of the songs demanding passages.  That moment is as close as I'll ever come to flying, being relieved of your tether to this world.  He was humble in the face of the thunderous applause, and over the next few tunes, relaxed into his material and his stage patter totally punctured the reclusive hermit myth.

The next flashpoint came a few songs in, when the sound system totally died.  After 90 seconds of small talk, it became obvious it wasn't an immediate fix.  Mangum grabbed his chair and jumped down from the stage, parking himself in front of the first row.  At this point, many from the audience started rushing up front, skidding to their knees and sprawling on the floor in front of him.  What security was in place wisely held their ground when it became apparent that no ill will was intended, and he requested, in the absence of amplification, that we help him out and sing along.
I have been to perhaps too many shows, sitting through bands' lame attempts to bolster their egos by 'joining in', but what broke out in that church on "Two Headed Boy, Part Two", was pure testifying, the sound of community, and to this day, hearing that song gives me goosebumps, and I choke up thinking about that moment, that night.

The remainder of the set flew by in a blur, sticking mostly to the two Neutral Milk Hotel LP's, but finding room for the unheard "Ferris Wheel On Fire", which surfaced later as part of the gigantic Neutral Milk Hotel box set, and a perfectly pitched cover of Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You In The End".  He finished the night on a high note with a rousing take on "Holland, 1945", and surfaced for an encore of "Engine", before unexpectedly hanging out at the foot of the stage to greet the audience and sign stubs, records, and I'm sure, body parts.  Truly an unforgettable evening.

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