Friday night something happened that I never, ever thought would happen (well, until tickets went on sale back in February). I saw Jeff Mangum live.
After 13 years of not touring he has returned to the stage, and it was possibly the best show I’ve ever been to. Partly because the man is such a legend, but mostly because In the Aeroplane over the Sea – the masterpiece album based on “The Diary of Anne Frank” – is regarded in the music community as the best indie album of all time, and I watched him sing it live, in a tiny, overheated church.
I arrived at Trinity St. Paul around 7pm, not realizing that some people had been waiting in line to get in since 11am. Security checked our bags for cameras and anything we could use to record the show, told us to turn our cellphones off and reminded us about the no photo/video policy. Once inside you were not allowed back out.
This was a dry, all ages show in a very old church that had to be at least 90 degrees with no A/C and only two small windows open . By the time I found a seat amongst the church pews, the collective sweat of the 450 men and 50 women surrounding me was so strong I almost gagged from it. The hour before the opening act (Andrew, Scott & Laura) was pretty uncomfortable because of this.
The hour during the opener was also somewhat uncomfortable. I did not know what this band was about, only being vaguely familiar with Elf Power, which they are loosely associated with. A large 50+ bearded man with his gray hair pulled back using a headband took the stage, with two others that looked like they had just walked out of the Feminist Bookstore in an episode of Portlandia, and they played some acoustic songs about poop, pee, and masturbation. Yes, really. It was like Peter Paul and Mary, but creepier.
My concert partner fell asleep during their set.
In a way it was exactly the kind of opener I would expect a musician who has been in hiding for over a decade to choose. It validated the idea that Jeff is the weirdo J.D Salinger type he has let legend describe him as – like he wanted to set us up for what could potentially be a really awkward concert experience with a person who doesn’t enjoy performing, only to shock us when he turned out to be a well adjusted normal guy.
After helping set up his gear undetected onstage amongst his road crew, the promoter came out and reminded the audience that no pictures or videos were allowed, and then Jeff appeared again, automatically receiving an overwhelming audience standing ovation. He said hello, grabbed his guitar, sat down in a chair and began with a perfect rendition of the Aeroplane classic “Oh Comely”.
“In an Aeroplane over the Sea” came next which immediately inspired a loud cheer on the first note. This is the defining Neutral Milk Hotel song, and it finally hit me that I was actually watching Jeff Mangum sing during it.
He followed it up with some tunes from his very underrated (it’s hard to live up to Aeroplane’s canonical place in music history) first album On Avery Island. “Gardenhead – Leave Me Alone” was awesome to hear, but I’ll admit I wasn’t really there for the Avery Island songs. A part of me just wanted to hear him sing Aeroplane in order, from start to finish, but playing solo makes recreating the incredible instrumentation on that album impossible – instrumental tracks were not a part of this set.
Following that he played Aeroplane’s perfect closing track “Two Headed Boy Pt 2” which has some of the most quotable lyrics of the entire album – my feelings on religion summed up perfectly in “god is a place you will wait for the rest of your life” and the depressing “two-headed boy, she is all you could need… but don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”. Sadly he did not play “Two Headed Boy Pt 1”, but that was probably the only song I was still hoping for by the end of the set.
“Ghost” was next, and watching his unbelievable ability to recreate this song so perfectly with just a guitar made me realize how truly talented he is. I witnessed some of the best acoustic guitar playing I’ve ever seen watching him play. His friends from the opening band did come out during songs like this one to provide some trumpet and clarinet backup, which helped to achieve the album level quality of the performance.
The next song was the biggest and best surprise of the night for me, when he announced he was playing “a Daniel Johnston cover” and started into “True Love Will Find You In The End.” If I wasn’t already emotional from the borderline religious musical experience I was having, this did me in. Not only was it a cover of one of my other favorite weirdo musicians, it was that song. I could go into detail about how that song first came into my life through the same person who introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel so many years ago, and you would understand why I teared up when I realized he was playing it, but that is for a different post. The cover was spotless and I would do anything to hear a recording of it, so if you managed to bootleg him singing this please, please send it along.
He switched back to On Avery Island after that, with the beloved album opener “Song Against Sex” and my absolute favorite from that album, the crushing “Naomi”, with its beautiful lyrics “Your prettiness is seeping through, out from the dress I took from you… And if she only really knew one billion angels could come and save her soul, they could save her soul until she shines.”
The rare “Ferris Wheel on Fire” followed, which was almost as unexpected as the Daniel Johnston tune.
As the night came to an end he finally gave us the three part Mangum opus and Aeroplane opener we were all waiting for with “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1-3” this time demanding we all sing along saying “You guys are all really polite, but you can sing, so sing!” He wanted an audience that would participate, and the only real disappointment of the show was how hard he had to work for it, encouraging everyone multiple times throughout the set.
Five hundred atheist hipsters staring at their musical Jesus in a church has a way of making a crowd a little stiff, but by the time the epic “I love you Jesus Christ” opening line in Part 2 began, everyone was singing along. This was Jeff’s alter and if he wanted us to be the choir we would certainly oblige, even if you couldn’t pay us to attend church any other day. We may not really love Jesus Christ, but we certainly love Jeff Mangum.
The last song before the encore was the one I had been waiting for all night and was starting to worry he might not play, “Holland, 1945”, and it was the best part of the whole performance. Everyone had finally let go and was shouting out “The only girl I’ve ever loved was born with roses in her eyes” and having an amazing time.
As it came to an end he put his guitar down, waved at the crowd who immediately stood up for another standing ovation, and left the stage, returning shortly after for a quick encore with a tune from his Live at Jittery Joe’s album, “Engine”.
It was a perfect night despite the heat and less than spectacular opener. With every songs conclusion the audience unleashed massive cheers and applause, and he would let out the biggest smile ever, like he was somehow in shock at hearing all the love we had for his songs. I guess that’s what happens when you go so long without an audience, you’re not as hyper aware of the iconic space you embody in the music community.
Jeff was not the super awkward recluse we were all expecting him to be. He seemed to be having a good time up there and he wanted to make sure we were all enjoying it too. At one point he asked “Are you guys happy?” and everyone cheered, then someone shouted out “Are you happy?” and with a big grin he replied “Yes I am happy” and you could tell he was really enjoying the night and this whole long awaited return to his disciples, most of whom were just kids back in the 90s when he was still making records.
He comes from the same musical time and indie poster-boy status as my other favorite modern musician, Elliott Smith, and for me, this concert felt like the closest I’d ever get to seeing Elliott. They were both pegged with the “depressing lo-fi indie” musician label and Jeff’s refusal to perform for over a decade made him as dead to his fans as Elliott was, so it was hard to look at Jeff quietly sitting in his chair, with his long brown hair under his hat, plaid shirt on, guitar in his lap, owning the audience with every word, and not associate him strongly with his only real lyrical competition. I never thought I’d get the chance to see either of them, so that he gave me that chance on Friday made the impossible gap in my musical wish list that much smaller.
A holy spectacle indeed.