JEFF MANGUM live at the Great Hall at Union Station. Hartford CT. 2/19/13.
(photo by Will Deitz at ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror, 2011)
"No photography or video recording allowed at any time during the show"
Thus read a bold-font note taped to the door of Hartford’s Great Hall at Union Station, where former Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum played a highly anticipated concert last night with Tall Firs and The Music Tapes. The universal photography ban has been in place for nearly all dates on each of Mangum’s three solo tours since his highly publicized return to the stage in December 2010.
I had seen Mangum perform twice before last night, first in Boston in September 2011 and again in New Haven in January of last year, and at both of those shows, the rule made sense. Boston’s Jordan Hall and New Haven’s Shubert Theater were both ornate, seated venues; within these storied theaters, which had in the past hosted philharmonics and operas, Mangum’s music felt almost saintly. Attending each felt like witnessing a musical performance as religious experience — to defoul such a private, holy moment with camera flashes and cell-phone video recording would be like photographing the Pope during Easter Mass in the Vatican City. I’ve never experienced that, but I imagine that such activity is frowned upon there.
Last night, however, was different. For the occasion, the central hall of Hartford’s primary train station was transformed into a massive, standing room venue, complete with a four foot high stage, lighting fixtures, and a large and perpetually crowded bar serving alcoholic drinks. It was a radically different setting from the two shows I had seen Mangum perform previously, and at first I was excited at the prospect of seeing him in a relatively more traditional ‘rock concert’ setting. As I soon discovered, though, the more ‘traditional’ setting of the Union Station Great Hall provided more than I had bargained for.
The night began, after doors were postponed from 7 to 7:30, with a frantic rush to the front of the stage. Along with a handful of others, I staked my claim to the very front and center, nervously eager at the prospect of the show that was to come. Tall Firs began the opening set as a solo act, having temporarily lost a member due to a family obligation. David Miles’ moody, blues-inflected folk would have likely caused some tears in a more intimate setting, but the nuances of his restrained voice and skeletal guitar work were lost on much of the audience, who frustratingly talked throughout the entirety of his set. The Music Tapes fared considerably better, amplifying the tinny twee-folk of their records to a dizzyingly high, full-bodied level. Although not as whimsically majestic as their October 2012 performance in Hamden, The Music Tapes’ set was certainly the most sonically engaging performance that I’ve seen them play. Along with his band of horn blowers, key-ticklers, and pipe-pounders (and, of course, the Seven Foot Tall Metronome) Julian Koster looked and sounded like the last thing I would have pinned him as: a rock star.
Thirty minutes after the Tapes closed with a rousing, evocative performance of “Takeshi and Elijah” from last year’s Mary’s Voice, Jeff Mangum took the stage. Heavily bearded and wearing his distinctive flannel, Mangum looked hermetic and rustic, as if he had wandered out of the Connecticut woods and stumbled into Union Station just minutes prior. Exhibiting a cluster of grey at its center, Mangum’s beard was aesthetically questionable, but effective in making him appear older that he is. I don’t blame him — if I, at Mangum’s age of 42, were known exclusively for work that I did in my 20s, I would try to distance myself from appearing young as well. He sat down and, with a brief, mumbled introduction, launched into a seamless performance of “Two-Headed Boy” and its companion piece, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” As with the two previous performances that I’ve seen, Mangum’s setlist yielded few surprises. The vast majority of songs were gleaned from Neutral Milk Hotel’s two full lengths On Avery Island and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, both of which are terrific records, and both of which hold unique nostalgic significance for me and countless other fans, many of whom were present in Hartford last night. In the opening set, Tall Firs’ David Miles positively noted how many young fans had been present at all the shows on this current tour, and although the extent to which Neutral Milk Hotel’s legacy has been preserved in the 15 years since Aeroplane's release is certainly admirable, the presence of so many young fans at the show last night was not without its detriments.
I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly (as I, at seventeen, am quite a young guy myself), but it was frankly difficult not to be annoyed by the level of immaturity that certain crowd members set during Mangum’s performance. A friend described it as “a bunch of six year olds trying to impress their dad,” and I’m inclined to agree with his assessment — it was cringeworthy. I don’t know if half the crowd had just spent their first afternoon on /mu/ earlier that day, but the number of “Jesus Christ” jokes and inane, pointless interjections that the crowd shouted at Jeff in between songs approached an insufferable level. He handled it well enough, but there was a look of weariness on his face by the end of the show that even his thick beard could not cover up.
Mangum encouraged singing, and the crowd unhesitatingly obliged, matching nearly every word and strained vocalization. During the more heavily orchestrated songs, such as “Song Against Sex” and set closer “Ghost,” the audience filled in vocalized versions of horn parts and harmonies atop Mangum’s sparse guitar strums. It was occasionally moving; if the previous shows had been akin to a solemn service at the Vatican City, last night’s show was more like a Baptist spiritual. Still, even as I passionately sang along, I could not shake the impression that something sacred was missing from this strange, communal celebration. For my own peace of mind, I’ll place the blame on the audience rather than on Mangum himself — for one thing, some of the crowd members really could not sing, and the warbled bleats of the immediately post-pubescent boy near me grew increasingly grating as the night wore on. But more importantly, I think the issue was one of familiarity. We all knew the songs so perfectly that there was no potential for surprise or spontaneity at any moment during the show. Even Mangum’s alternate/live version of “A Baby For Pree,” which usually throws some fans off at his shows, failed to startle anybody present last night. Similarly, when former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster came back on stage to play singing saw on “Engine” and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” it felt trad and predictable, though still entirely welcome.
In a word, the concert experience felt cheap — worth the $30 that most fans paid for their tickets, certainly, but perhaps not entirely worth the hastily-arranged flight that I booked back from Washington, D.C. when I learned that the show had been postponed from its original date due to snow. From a certain perspective, it was a perfect show, featuring two especially great performances and a smattering of some of the best folk songs I’ve ever heard, and yet, it was also painfully hollow and lacking in the urgent, vital essence that made all those Neutral Milk Hotel songs so great in their original incarnations. To put it plainly, I was conflicted in a way that I have never really felt before. After the full hall sang along to “Aeroplane,” with Koster conducting the crowd to match Scott Spillane’s absent horn solo, saw-bow in hand, the two former bandmates bowed and calmly exited the stage.
In my pocket I held a Kodak disposable film camera, which I kept there, primed and full of film, for the entire duration of the show. I considered saving it until the very end, allowing myself minimal possibility of punishment, and justified its potential use by virtue of the archaic quality innate within a disposable camera. Surely there were kids wielding Kodaks at Neutral Milk Hotel’s shows in the ’90s, right? Ultimately, I decided against using it at all. After nearly three hours of terrific, powerfully familiar songs, overwhelming waves of nostalgia, and some fundamentally cringe-inducing crowd involvement, I considered it my obligation to preserve whatever dignity remained in Union Station that night. After meeting up with the Music Tapes once more and thanking them for their particularly stellar performance, I walked out into the rainy Hartford night, left with a frustratingly mixed, thoroughly exhausted impression.
Setlist - 2/19/13
- 1. Two-Headed Boy
- 2. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
- 3. Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
- 4. Song Against Sex
- 5. King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
- 6. King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2-3
- 7. Oh Comely
- 8. A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You
- 9. Oh Sister
- 10. Holland, 1945
- 11. Naomi
- 12. Ghost
- 13. Engine (with Julian Koster) (encore)
- 14. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (with Julian Koster) (encore)
Watch: Jeff Mangum & Julian Koster play “Engine” in Ithaca, NY - 2/13/13
Excited for this show on Tuesday!
Jeff Mangum - “Two-Headed Boy”/”The Fool” (feat. The Music Tapes) (Live in New Haven)
JUST ANNOUNCED: Jeff Mangum is coming back to Connecticut on Friday, February 8th 2013 for a special standing-room show at The Great Hall in Union Station in Hartford! The show will feature support from Tall Firs and The Music Tapes.
Above, check out this video from when Jeff performed in Connecticut back in January! He delivers a perfect performance of “Two-Headed Boy” that surprisingly leads right into the Scott Spillane instrumental “The Fool,” with support from The Music Tapes, a band that features former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster!
THE MUSIC TAPES live at The Blank Canvas. Hamden CT. 11/3/12
It’s hard for me to put into words what the past 24 hours have been like for me, but I will do my best. It was, to put it briefly, an utterly surreal experience. As soon as I walked into The Blank Canvas (a temporary warehouse space owned and operated by The Space), it was as if I had transcended this drab, material plane of existence and entered something entirely transmundane. On record, The Music Tapes are at best capable of merely alluding to this exo-world, giving fuzzy and brief glimpses into it through the nostalgic hiss of old magnetic tape and the gentle bleat of a bowed banjo. Although their recorded music has come to occupy a very special space in my heart, their live show — especially on this tour — is completely incomparable.
I first saw The Music Tapes nearly a full year ago, when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. It was an appropriate pairing, given that Mangum and The Music Tapes’ frontman Julian Koster were once both members of Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Tapes certainly brought that Elephant 6 Collective whimsy and pyschedelia to the show last night as well. The difference between the New Haven show and this one was as much a matter of intimacy as it was of scope. Along with the previous night’s show in Massachusetts, this show was a preview of the band’s boldest live vision yet. It’s called the “Travelling Imaginary” tour, and it involves the Music Tapes bringing a giant rectangular circus tent to every show and allowing the attendees to come in and sit inside it, inviting them into a dreamlike, musical world for the duration of the night.
Although the band was still working out some logistical kinks (it was, after all, a preview show), the Travelling Imaginary experience was delightfully playful and, at times, soberingly beautiful. It was also surprisingly interactive, featuring film projections, a carnival-style beanbag toss, and a silly Romanian ball game (played with red balloons) that Julian Koster curated and played with the raptly attentive audience of approximately 75 people. When the band was actually playing, they sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, on record or otherwise. Koster was joined by longtime collaborator Robbie Cucchiaro, who played various horn instruments, along with a keyboard player and a multi-instrumentalist who occasionally found himself playing three instruments at once. The four piece was supplemented by an accoutrement of Music Tapes members of the inanimate variety, including a “mechanical organ tower” and a 7-foot tall metronome that stood ominously and obelisk-like behind the group. Koster himself frequently switched instruments from orchestral banjo (which he played with a violin bow) to singing saw, and even to heavily distorted bass guitar, which he used on “S’ Alive to Be Known (May We Starve),” much to the audience’s delight. No matter what instrument he was playing, a wide-eyed smile never left Koster’s perpetually youthful face, which filled the iridescent tent with enough warm energy to staunch the cold air from outside.
Much of the setlist was culled from the band’s newest and best album, Mary’s Voice, which is out now on Merge Records. Album opener “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South)” made for a wonderful highlight in the middle of the show, with Cucchiaro’s muted trouble accenting Koster’s pining vocals, while “Spare The Dark Streets” found Koster’s banjo waltzing in time with Cucchiaro’s valve trombone. The setlist also included standout tracks from the band’s other two LPs, including the metronone-assisted “The Minister of Longitude” from 2008’s Music Tapes For Clouds and Tornadoes. Although the show was filled with evocative instances of beauty both great and small, there was one moment in particular that stood out as truly moving and memorable. When Julian Koster solemnly stood in the center of the tent for the last time to play “Takeshi and Elijah,” surrounded by his bandmates and their various eccentric instruments, it was akin to when I saw Jeff Mangum close with “Ferris Wheel on Fire” in Boston last September. As “Takeshi’s” forlorn banjo chords rang out amidst the hushed, cross-legged crowd, the room assumed the kind of indescribable energy that many of Julian’s endearingly imagined folk stories are about. It’s as if there was an abstract understanding reached amongst everyone packed into the tent last night — some profundity so immaterial that it could only be conveyed through music, specifically that of Julian Koster The song’s last, lone banjo note seemed to last forever, as if in an eternal solipsism, as a testament to the timelessness of Koster’s legacy. By the time the full band came crashing in at the very end, keyboards and horns blaring, it seemed more like a celebration than a requiem. The Travelling Imaginary may have ended for us that night in an objective sense, but it nevertheless left an indelible mark on everybody who was there.
Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been posting in the past day, you know that my experience with The Music Tapes didn’t actually end at The Blank Canvas that night. When I drove home with Julian Koster in my car, ate veggie burgers a diner on Dixwell Avenue with seven of the loveliest people I now know, and eventually made breakfast and drank coffee with them this morning, I saw a human side to a group of people who just last night had made a pretty good case for idolization. It made me realize a truth about modern music culture, specifically with regards to The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Elephant 6. There are no rock stars anymore — just people who are creative and/or crazy enough to survive this kind of musical existence. Julian Koster and the Music Tapes do that and more; they thrive in their lifestyle and inspire others to do the same. When Julian signed my copy of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before we all headed back to Hamden to take down the tent today, it felt oddly anti-climactic, but the truth is, he had already left his mark on me. That mark — the mark of influence, respect, and hope for the future — was more permanent than any autograph could ever be.
The Music Tapes - “Takeshi and Elijah”
This is my favorite track from The Music Tapes' new LP Mary’s Voice, their most accomplished and coherent album yet, from a songwriting perspective. It’s soothing, but fraught with uncertainty — gentle, but mysterious and dark. Julian Koster’s strummed banjo and voice solemnly occupy the first five minutes by themselves, before the full band comes in at the end to finish the record on a lush, exuberant, high note.
The lyrics speak of past times, with touching references to Koster’s past band Neutral Milk Hotel, but the song itself feels timeless, like much of the Elephant 6 Collective’s best output. I feel like Koster has spent the past two decades searching extensively for the best way to express his thoroughly unique creative voice, and this song is perhaps the most fully realized documentation of the progression that he’s made.
Stream “Takeshi and Elijah” above and purchase Mary’s Voice from Merge Records. If you’re in the Connecticut area, come catch The Music Tapes tonight on their “Travelling Imaginary” tour at The Space in Hamden. More information about that show can be found HERE.
The Music Tapes are staying at my house tonight after their show.
This is the first time I’ve hosted a touring band at my house, and I’m really excited. I hope I don’t geek out too hard but it’s a distinct possibility.
Left of the Dial Radio Playlist - 11/2/12
Thanks for tuning in to my radio show last night on WNHU. Below is the full playlist, which, I’m happy to say, included a number of great requests. Thanks for that especially! Stream the available tracks via Spotify at the bottom of this post, and be sure to tune in again next Friday from 6 to 8 PM Eastern time.
- 1. You Blew It! - “The One With Marc”
- 2. Cock Sparrer - “Riot Squad”
- 3. Joan of Arc - “The Hands”
- 4. Joie De Vivre - “Maybe People Do Change”
- 5. Beach House - “The Hours” (Requested by myriad-harbour)
- 6. Simon & Garfunkel - “Bleecker Street”
- 7. Neil Young - “Harvest”
- 8. The Rural Alberta Advantage - “Tornado ‘87”
- 9. Neutral Milk Hotel - “Little Birds”
- 10. Akron/Family - “I’ll Be On The Water” (Requested by withlugosi)
- 11. The Music Tapes - “Freeing Song For Reindeer”
- 12. My Morning Jacket - “Wordless Chorus”
- 13. Sidewalk Dave - “Cayenne”
- 14. Man Man - “Black Mission Goggles”
- 15. Feist - “My Moon My Man”
- 16. The Hold Steady - “Barfruit Blues” (Requested by please-get-free)
- 17. Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) - “When You Are Done Living On Borrowed Time” (Requested by sea-fence)
- 18. Earl Sweatshirt - “Chum”
- 19. Hot Sugar - “Rat City” (feat. Big Baby Gandhi, Nasty Nigel, YC the Cynic & S@rah Miche11e Gell@r)
- 20. jj - “Things Will Never Be The Same Again”
- 21. College - “A Real Hero” (feat. Electric Youth)
- 22. PJ Harvey - “This Mess We’re In” (feat. Thom Yorke)
- 23. Gang Gang Dance - “Mindkilla”
- 24. Boards of Canada - “Chromakey Dreamcoat”
- 25. Radiohead - “Life In A Glasshouse”
- 26. Bright Eyes - “The Center of the World”
- 27. The Music Tapes - “Takeshi and Elijah”
Stream via Spotify:
Anonymous said: Hey Chris, if you had to suggest an album for a budding music enthusiast, which album would you choose? Thanks, -- A budding music enthusiast
Literally any album?
I mean, I don’t want to say In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, but it was the first thing that came to mind…
Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Day 1 Recap
The Olivia Tremor Control
The introduction. We arrived via El Train at Union Park before 3 PM, only to be met with a torrential downpour. We stood in line for upwards of half an hour, getting soaked with hundreds of other misanthropic festival attendees. Hearing that the gates were going to remain closed until 3:30 elicited a number of groans from the line, but soon enough the rain stopped and the gates were opened. Lower Dens delivered a strong set on the red stage that got more impressive and engaging as it went on. We cut out slightly early to get a decent spot for The Olivia Tremor Control — an Elephant 6-affiliated psych rock revival band from the 90s — who happened to have Neutral Milk Hotel's Scott Spillane playing sousaphone and trumpet for them. Jeff Mangum was nowhere to be found, unfortunately. I'm still hoping for a full on NMH reunion in 2013. Before the OTC wrapped things up on the green stage, we bunny hopped one stage further to catch Willis Earl Beal on the blue stage. During the portion of his set that we caught, Beal delivered songs ranging from foot stomping, bellowing dirges to slow, heartfelt ballads. His versatility as a songwriter and his hoarse, mighty voice drew comparisons to Tom Waits, as did his affinity for liquor; Beal downed the majority of a freshly opened bottle of Jack Daniels during his set.
We felt the need to run over to the red stage once Beal finished in order to catch A$AP Rocky, but, of course, Rocky and his crew didn’t go on until well after their posted set time. That turned out to be par for the course with most of the rappers I saw at the fest, but I’m not complaining. Rocky’s set was actually pretty great, even though his crew looked a little ridiculous onstage playing hype-men (Also, who’s that one white dude? He sucks.). Unfortunately, we had to jet before we got to hear “Peso” because we wanted good spots for Japandroids. We arrived just at the end of Tim Hecker's set, which was pretty depressing and miserable. Honestly, I like Tim Hecker on record, but I don't think a single person there gave a fuck about him in that moment. The vast majority of the crowd was definitely there to catch Japandroids, who were supposed to play at 6:15 but ended up going on late.
Because of the late start time, Japandroids' set was clipped to just 8 full songs. Nevertheless, it was an awesome and intense experience that will probably go down as the most enjoyable (if not the absolute best overall) set from Pitchfork 2012 for me. Plus, as both Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock prove, sometimes 8 songs is just the right number. Highlights included the opener “Adrenaline Nightshift,” which incited a mosh pit within 5 seconds of its opening chord, and the closer “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” which segued into “Sovereignty” at the end. The segue was a nice way of acknowledging the band’s older fans, many of whom recognized the deep cut.
Bruised, battered, and absolutely loving life, John and I managed to crawl our way over to the red stage just in time to catch the beginning of Dirty Projectors’ set. The setlist mostly focused on stuff from Swing Lo Magellan (which is excellent, by the way), but they also busted out some Bitte Orca art rock classics, including “Useful Chamber,” which was extremely intense live. Other highlights included the rousing new single “Gun Has No Trigger” and the gentle love song “Impregnable Question,” during which frontman David Longstreth and guitarist/vocalist/Longstreth’s girlfriend Amber Coffman seemed to be making heart eyes at each other. Mostly, I was just amazed at how tight the band was instrumentally and vocally. The four part harmonies, which are so jarring and angular on record, are equally attuned live. It’s almost scary how good they sounded.
Dirty Projectors were the last band on Friday that I really wanted to see, so after their set, John and I just hung around for a while, catching the first half of Purity Ring’s set before heading over to the green stage to catch the rest of Feist's. I'm not a huge fan of either group, but both their sets were enjoyable. The highlight of the latter set came at the end, when Leslie Feist and her band transformed the gentle title track from 2004's Let It Die into an arena rock-worthy power ballad. Watching from a distance, I was able to appreciate the scope of Feist's vision, and in that moment I understood exactly why she was headlining Day 1.
Stream/Download: Neutral Bling Hotel - In My G4 Over Da Sea (2012)
Some mashup producer named Psycosis mashed up a bunch of hip-hop with Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It’s surprisingly good, but more importantly, it’s surprisingly… real.
Highlights include the mashup of “King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2-3” and Kanye West's “Jesus Walks,” and the mashup of, uh, “Oh Comely” and “Teach Me How To Dougie.”
Stream the whole thing above and download it for free at the Psycosis bandcamp page.
Left of the Dial Radio Playlist - 2/10/12
Thanks to everybody who tuned in to my radio show last night on WNHU. It was great to see you guys being so responsive. Be sure to catch my next broadcast next Friday from 6 to 8 PM. Here’s the full playlist from last night’s show with attached links to stream each song.
- 1. Dum Dum Girls - "Bhang Bhang, I’m A Burnout"
- 2. Bomb The Music Industry! - "Why, Oh Why, Oh Why (Oh Oh Oh Oh)"
- 3. Big Star - "September Gurls"
- 4. The Darkness - "I Believe In A Thing Called Love"
- 5. Free Energy - "Free Energy"
- 6. Real Estate - "It’s Real"
- 7. LVL UP - "APOCALYPTOPHOBIA"
- 8. Sunny Day Real Estate - "Seven" (Requested by blueshadedays)
- 9. Hostage Calm - "The "M" Word"
- 10. The Good Life - "The Beaten Path"
- 11. Desaparecidos - ”$$$$”
- 12. The Dismemberment Plan - "The City"
- 13. Self Defense Family - “All Fruit Is Ripe”
- 14. Have a Nice Life - "The Future"
- 15. Cap’n Jazz - "Little League"
- 16. The Replacements - "Kids Don’t Follow"
- 17. Reatards - "I’m So Gone"
- 18. The White Stripes - "Hello Operator"
- 19. Slow Warm Death - “Alone”
- 20. Leonard Cohen - "Going Home"
- 21. Tom Waits - "Chicago"
- 22. The Rural Alberta Advantage - "The Breakup"
- 23. Neutral Milk Hotel - "King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One"
- 24. Neutral Milk Hotel - "King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three"
- 25. The Clash - "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais"
- 26. Widowspeak - "In The Pines"
- 27. Dum Dum Girls - "Coming Down"
- 28. Weezer - "Only In Dreams"
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)