February 8, 2012
Last night I did something I’ve always dreamed but never thought in a million years would actually do, I saw Jeff Mangum play live. I was just entering my teens when Neutral Milk Hotel broke up (shortly after releasing their landmark album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea). I didn’t discover the band till a few years later, but once I did they were incredibly formative to my musical development. It always saddened me that, due to Jeff Mangum’s legendary disappearance post-breakup, I would never get the chance to see the songs I loved performed live. Thus, getting the chance to see him in concert made me excited beyond words.
Although an artist of Mangum’s influence and cult-status could have probably sold out just about any place in town, he chose to play the Athenaeum Theatre, a 100-year old venue that is typically home to community theatrical productions. With only 900 seats available, suffice it to say, only a lucky few were able to get tickets (both Chicago performances sold out in less then 4 minutes according to the theater). The setting added to the intimate nature of the evening which saw Mangum playing his classic songs in the way they were originally written (as he explained) with just his voice and a guitar. That’s not to say there wasn’t any accompaniment, he was joined on stage by fellow Neutral Milk Hotel members Scott Spillane (who also opened the show) and Laura Carter at a few key moments to provide instrumental backing.
Jeff Mangum took the sparsely-arranged stage and immediately launched into one of his seminal songs “Oh Comely”, with it’s hypnotic guitar rhythm and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The spotlight was Mangum’s vocals though, which sounded just as fervent, mesmerizing and remarkable as they had on countless listens to his albums. Hearing that distinct, piercing voice sliding up and down octaves, holding lengthy notes and cracking at all the appropriate moments was truly magical.
The setlist was filled with everything a hardcore Neutral Milk Hotel would hope for, “Holland, 1945”, “Song Against Sex”, “Ghost”, “Engine” “A Baby For Pree”, all three of parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers”, “Naomi”, and both parts of “Two-Headed Boy”. In fact, the only non-instrumental track from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea not played was “Communist Daughter”. The audience watched in awe, giving each track recognition applause and participating in sing-a-longs at Mangum’s request (although never the point of overshadowing his vocals). Mangum even answered some questions from the crowd throughout the night (one person asked “did you ever find your dream girl?”) although most were just wonderstruck shouts of “we missed you”, “thank you for coming back” and the like.
After finishing the main set with his rag-tag orchestra joining him on stage for “Two-Headed Boy” and “The Fool” and garnering an uproarious standing ovation, Mangum came out for a two-song encore starting with On Avery Island track “Gardenhead” and closing with a breathtaking performance of one of my favorite tracks ever, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”. If there ever was a more perfect way to close out a night then with this stunning track, then I don’t know it. Joining in as the entire room sang the final words “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all” is certainly one of the most transcendent concert moments I can remember. Much more than just an X on the concert “bucket list”, the entire night was everything I dreamed it would be, an extraordinary, unforgettable experience.