JEFF MANGUM live at The Shubert. New Haven CT. 1.18.12
Looking a bit more haggard and wearing hair slightly longer than the last time I saw him, the resurrected Neutral Milk Hotel bandleader Jeff Mangum seemed a little world-weary when he took the stage at The Shubert last night in New Haven. Maybe it was just me; when I saw Mangum perform for the first time, in Boston back in September, I was understandably swept up in the sheer novelty of a performance from the once reclusive songwriter. Perhaps I was too caught up in it. In my fanboyish craze, I may have not recognized a less charming side of Mangum that night, and potentially overlooked some errors in performance. Maybe they just weren’t there. At any rate, the Mangum who performed last night seemed a little more shaken than the Mangum I saw in September.
Of course, in all the fundamental ways he was still the same person. He still displayed that same affable sheepishness about his own musical genius that I had come to expect from the previous show and everything I had read about him prior to that. He still looked like he had just arrived via time machine from 1998, wearing that same distinctive old hat and a slightly too big button down shirt with rolled up cuffs. He still had his songs — those transcendant, unforgettable songs that we’ve all heard so many times — and for the most part, he still sounded like he did when he recorded them all years ago.
But despite all of the wonderful qualities that come with Mangum inherently, something felt off about the show last night. Thinking about it now, I recognize that it probably wasn’t Mangum’s fault, but a combination of the atmosphere, the venue, and the inevitable pressures of sustained touring.
Opening band The Music Tapes established a light and whimsical atmosphere at the onset of the show, joyfully bringing their eccentric lo-fi circus folk to life. The three-man lineup was supplemented by an assortment of pre-programmed odds and ends that could only be found at a Music Tapes show, including a “mechanical organ tower,” a singing television set, and, most notably, a seven foot tall metronome. Frontman Julian Koster introduced each of these contraptions at length, and incorporated them into fantastical stories about his childhood and the history of his Romanian ancestors. What The Music Tapes lacked in conventional melodies, they more than made up for in wide-eyed dreaminess and twee cuteness. On top of that, the last song they played — a track from an album that they hope to put out later in the year — was actually quite beautiful.
Aside from their actual music, the idea of The Music Tapes opening for a Jeff Mangum show was undoubtedly enticing to many attendees because of the possibilities that it invited. Before his own band got off the ground, Julian Koster was best known as Neutral Milk Hotel’s resident multi-instrumentalist. The question of whether Koster would join his former bandmate for a song or two loomed over the entirety of the Tapes’ set and well into Mangum’s as well. As it turned out, fans got more than they possibly could have expected in that department, but I’ll elaborate on that later.
When Mangum came onstage around 9:30 PM, he quickly nestled himself into his array of acoustic guitars and began playing amidst tremendous applause. Set opener “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” is a fantastic song, and one of my favorites in Mangum’s catalogue, yet I couldn’t help but think that such a wistful tear-jerker would have served better as a closer. Thankfully, Mangum got things moving quickly by following up with “Holland, 1945.” For a moment, the audience seemed really energized, heeding Mangum’s off-hand suggestion to “sing along if you like” and filling the theater hall with fervent voices. This energy carried through into the On Avery Island rocker ”Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone” and reached a climax during that song’s transitional period.
However, during the set’s slower moments, the audience’s passion transformed into reverent silence. This reaction was understandable, as Jeff Mangum’s music is not only difficult to sing, but also demands rapt attention to reveal its subtleties. Nonetheless, it was frustrating that audience participation was not more pronounced, since Mangum seemed to genuinely encourage it. At times, such as during the chorus of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’s ”Ghost,” he actually had to call upon us to sing along, and still many people either didn’t feel compelled to do so or were simply unable.
The overall atmosphere throughout the night was similar to the Boston show, undoubtedly thanks to Mangum’s intentional involvement of the audience, but the whole show seemed a little tense, as if the audience was consistently desiring an emotional release. Just as the audience didn’t seem to engage with Mangum in the right way, Mangum himself seemed somewhat disconnected from the audience, at least more than he was at the Boston show. He remained affable and humorous in his own awkward way, cracking quick jokes here and there, but seemed somewhat disheartened by the trials of touring. In reaction to an inevitable “Free Bird” shoutout, Mangum cooly replied, “Sorry man, I’m from Louisiana and we just don’t find that funny down there.” It was funny, but at other times during the show he didn’t seem to be having such a light-hearted time.
I think the issue was that Mangum’s onstage persona clashed somewhat with his music and the atmosphere that the venue provided. Playing in old theater halls works for Mangum because his music and lyrics evoke an older time and an archaic culture, but Mangum himself seems somewhat out of place playing such venues. I remember wondering at the time what it would have been like seeing Mangum in a smaller, standing-room venue, and whether a more intimate setting would have encouraged the kind of participation and singing along that Mangum apparently desired.
Nevertheless, the show was not without its highlights. Mangum’s performance of the Ferris Wheel On Fire version of ”A Baby For Pree / Glow Into You” was wonderful, and it led right into the moment that so many of the fans were hoping for, as Julian Koster joined Mangum with his singing saw in hand for an inspired performance of “Engine.” This then led to another rare Mangum moment, in which he performed the eerie Ferris Wheel On Fire cut “Little Birds.” With the “King Of Carrot Flowers” suite and the breathtaking and perfectly-positioned “Oh Comely” in tow afterwards, these four or five songs made for an incredible middle section of the show. But the true highlight for me came at the very end, when Mangum performed “Two-Headed Boy.” As the song reached its final seconds, he got the audience to sing along to its wordless finale. Just as his voice faded out, the three-man Music Tapes, led by Koster himself, paraded out onstage with instruments in hand to play “The Fool” with Mangum, an instrumental written by Koster and Neutral Milk Hotel horn player Scott Spillane, that directly follows “Two-Headed Boy” on the In The Aeroplane Over The Sea tracklisting. If this was as close as we’ll get to a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion, I’d be perfectly satisfied. After leaving the stage, Koster and Mangum returned one last time to play a final song together, Aeroplane's wistful title track.
As great as these moments were collectively, I’m still left wondering about last night. Did Jeff Mangum undergo change himself, or did he change me? Either way, something felt off about the show, but when it comes down to whether I would recommend the Jeff Mangum live experience to others, I would not hesitate to do so.
Jeff Mangum setlist - 1.18.12
- 1. “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”
- 2. “Holland, 1945”
- 3. Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone”
- 4. “A Baby For Pree / Glow Into You”
- 5. “Engine” (featuring Julian Koster)
- 6. “Little Birds”
- 7. “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 1-3”
- 8. “Oh Comely”
- 9. “Ghost”
- 10. “Naomi”
- 11. “Two-Headed Boy”
- 12. “The Fool” (featuring The Music Tapes)
- 13. “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” (featuring Julian Koster) (Encore)