Jeff Mangum @ Jordan Hall 9.10.11
by Kyle Risley (Marketing), published October 6th 2011
photos by Will Westbrook
Finally. Fourteen years after the release of In the Aeroplane over the Sea and, three years later, the complete dismantling of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum has sung again. And this time it’s not in New Zealand.
I never really considered what it would be like to see Jeff Mangum or where it would make sense for him to play, but once I stepped into Jordan Hall everything immediately clicked. Jeff’s simple songs with extraordinary vocal and horn accompaniments felt right at home amidst the ornate, gilded Renaissance flourishes that lined the creamy walls arching over the audience.
The opening act was a strikingly young all-female string quartet that performed under the name ACME. Two violinists, a violist, and a cellist played engaging pieces hand-picked by Jeff Mangum, mostly consisting of French and British compositions. The most remarkable of which was entitled “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” composed in 1971 by Gavin Bryars. The piece sampled an anonymous homeless man singing a hollow, haunting refrain with the loose framework of a melody intertwined. “Jesus blood never failed me yet / never failed me yet / Jesus blood never failed me yet / there’s one thing I know / for he loves me so” looped for two minutes before any instrumentation joined, casting a dark mood across the horseshoe-shaped seating. A searching viola joined in first, shortly followed by plucked cello strings that helped punctuate the dreadful drone and gave it a hopeful undertone. However, after ten minutes the crowd became visibly (and audibly) restless, clapping about a minute before the piece actually ended. While interrupting the song was inexcusably rude, the piece went from being merely esoteric to overly indulgent.
After the quartet bowed and exited the stage, a single chair was placed in the center of a lone spotlight surrounded by four acoustic guitars and sheet music. Jeff Mangum nonchalantly strolled out to thunderous applause, as if he’d forgotten he’d been gone for so long. A dark cap sat on top of his chin length hair that fell to either side of his narrow face as he took his seat and promptly dove into “Oh, Comely.” Two open chords and Mangum’s infamous delivery were all that reverberated around the hall as a silent audience looked on as he navigated the twists and turns of each verse for eight electrifying minutes. “It sounds better if you sing along,” encouraged Mangum before following with “Two Headed Boy, Pt 2.” Aside from his nearly flawless performance, what stood out most was how easy he made it look. Even the endless, tightly wound stanzas of “Song Against Sex” couldn’t make Mangum miss a breath.
The bulk of the evening was split between In the Aeroplane over the Sea and On Avery Island, with the former being played in its entirety save for the instrumental tracks. Special appearances by “Engine” (“Holland, 1945” b-side) and a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End” were rare treats for the audience, which became increasingly vocal in its demands as the evening wore on. In fact, what initially started as a well-meaning invitation for questions from Mangum turned into a barrage of song requests and awkward questions about cats and Steely Dan. At least he gets credit for trying.
As the night began winding down, what became apparent was the unusual simplicity of the songs. Especially when stripped of Neutral Milk Hotel’s horns (which the audience dutifully filled in when needed), the evening showcased how Mangum’s voice was able to carry the love, fear, and hope that most artists needed a full band to flesh out. But when the time came for accompaniment on “Naomi,” ACME was happy to provide strings to carry Mangum’s yearning to new heights. The entire “King of Carrot Flowers” trilogy was played in sequence before the set ended with “Holland, 1945.” A brief interlude of applause brought Mangum back out for “Engine” and “Two Headed Boy Pt 1,” before things started to get interesting. Mangum took a final bow, walked off stage, the house lights went up and a spattering of people headed for the exits. Most people, however, didn’t leave. Clapping continued for several minutes before Mangum came back on the stage, obviously unexpectedly, and agreed to play one more song. The unreleased “Ferris Wheels on Fire” followed, previously only available via bootlegs. “And now, fading from view, is everything we ever knew” were the last word sung for the night, breaking the spell that Mangum had cast during his fifteen song set.
Regardless of whether or not these shows lead to a full band reunion, new material, or something else entirely, Mangum proved that his songs are just as captivating today as they were when they were laid to tape in the nineties. Suddenly fourteen years doesn’t feel so long ago.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check our upcoming issue 25 for Alyssa Mastrocco’s take on Jeff Mangum’s Jordan Hall show.