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Review: Jeff Mangum inspires passion in workmanlike fashion

Posted by Chris DeVille | January 15, 2013 11:09 AM


Jeff Mangum in cleaner-shaven days

Five quick thoughts on former Neutral Milk Hotel singer Jeff Mangum's hotly anticipated, photography-prohibited, Wexner Center-sponsored performance at the Southern Theatre:

(1) Mangum looked every bit the recluse he's reputed to be, with scraggly locks, a ballcap and a lengthy beard shrouding his visage, wearing a grandma sweater that resembled this one. Without the benefit of hearing, this would almost have felt like watching an impersonator, somebody's best idea of how 2013 Mangum might look, like one of those counterfeit MF Dooms. But when Mangum opened his mouth to sing, there was no mistaking him. His voice is among the most powerful and distinct instruments I've encountered, lending almost supernatural weight to the surreal imagery that once spilled freely from his imagination. Frankly, I would have showed up just to hear him babbling nonsense syllables.

(2) Mangum wasn't out to challenge us, though. He seemed abnormally fixated on accurately recreating Neutral Milk Hotel's recordings — mostly the vocals, although he did bring out a guest to play French horn and trumpet on opener "Oh Comely" and encore "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." At one point he apologized for nearly imperceptible vocal shredding on the high notes. Later: "I told myself I wouldn't come out here unless I could deliver the songs for real and not, like, f--- around." His dedication was impressive: holding out the vocal drone on "Oh Comely"; singing "spi-rills" instead of "spirals" on "Two Headed Boy"; nailing every last crescendo.

(3) The execution was stunning throughout, but I didn't feel fully immersed in the show until about halfway through, when Mangum launched into "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2." Maybe it's all those years of watching lesser talents murder Mangum's classics at open stages, or maybe it's the shocking simplicity and familiarity of the basic open chords Mangum trades in, but at first the thrill of watching yet another guy (even "the" guy) playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs on acoustic guitar was lost on me. Something about that arching chorus with "God is a place where some holy spectacle lies" and "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life" caught me off guard and burrowed past my cynicism, and I was swept away into pure fanboy euphoria. I started thinking about Mangum laying down the original track in the studio, then thousands (millions?) of listeners discovering it in dorm rooms and record stores and friends' cars over the years, and how many AIM away messages it undoubtedly inspired back in the day. (I remember one college friend in particular who quoted that "God is a place" line.) When I thought about all that circling back to this moment, back to Mangum strumming and wailing away, suddenly I was wrapped up in one of those transcendent moments you always hope for when you walk into a concert hall. To witness this man performing these songs was a great privilege.

(4) I was frequently reminded last night that when Mangum disappeared from the public eye in 1999 just a year after In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came out, he wasn't retreating from humanity at large, just the music industry. After opening with a pitch-perfect rendition of "Oh Comely," he invited everyone in the theatre to get up from their seats, crowd around the stage and sing along. (Possibly a bummer for the folks who scored front-row tickets, but we know how Mangum feels about the 1 percent.) Later, when Mangum expressed gratitude that so many people turned out to hear him, some dude in the audience spouted off that the whole world is Mangum's audience. The singer replied, "The world is my audience? No, sorry. A really small percentage of the world is my audience. But don't worry, I like it that way. See I still have this memory of this thing called the underground. Remember that?" After acknowledging the potential curmudgeonly responses to such a notion, he concluded, "I know there's no underground. I'm just saying I like it like this."

(5) The concert's DIY turn certainly yielded its share of audience interaction. Speaking of which: Wow, guys, STFU. Apparently Mangum's kind demeanor convinced a significant portion of the crowd to blurt out every last thought instantly and without filter. People were rightfully enthusiastic — they even cheered when he drank bottled water — but the vox populi became so constant that it felt like the audience was trying to steal the spotlight from its long lost hero. Some of the would-be witty banter did turn out to be charming, though. While Mangum was tuning one of his four acoustic guitars, somebody shouted, "Tune your guitar if there's going to be a new album!" Later, another guy spouted, "Jeff, I'm a lovestruck teenager. Will you play 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'?" This caused the vociferous ditz down front to respond, "I want to see who said that." Perhaps Mangum should start a dating service. It wouldn't be that different from what's been going down amongst Neutral Milk Hotel enthusiasts for years now; I talked to one acquaintance after the show whose wife walked down the aisle to "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The lesson in all these ill-considered outbursts and budding romances? Mangum's music inspires great passion in people. I'm glad he's back, if only temporarily, to oversee the fervor.

Setlist:
Oh Comely
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 and 3
Song Against Sex
Gardenhead
Holland, 1945
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Oh Sister
A Baby For Pree
Engine
Two-Headed Boy
Naomi
Ghost

Encore:
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
 

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