If you like indie rock and you're under the age of 45 you're probably familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel. If not, here's some backstory which makes clear that NMH is really Jeff Mangum. You'll note that this backstory is 15 years old. That's because Mangum stopped performing in 1998 after releasing two magnificent albums. He then went into Salingeresque hiding.
Unlike Salinger, who remained in seclusion until his death, Mangum is back on tour. If you know what's good for you you'll click on that link. I'll make it easy for some of you: BAM on 1/20/12 and Lincoln Theater on 1/27/12.
I don't always know what's good for me, but I managed to score tickets to two of Mangum's most recent shows in October and November. Here's a recap.
I like hipsters. They often look goofy so I look cool standing next to them. They like interesting music and drinking beer, so they know about bars with good music and diverse beer menus. I work with a hipster from Minnesota, which means that in addition to all the foregoing he also likes to play and talk hockey. We agreed that we would both try to get tickets to see Mangum at Town Hall and Loews Landmark Theater, and if either of us got tickets we would go together. In a karmically fantastic turn of events I scored two tickets to both shows.
My run of good Mangum karma ended on the afternoon of October 29 when my new suburban abode was pelted with slushy snow, obliterating trees everywhere and knocking out power throughout my county. Here's a representative photo of my neighborhood:
Amazingly, that giant branch did not knock out power to the yellow house in the photo. A few minutes after I took that shot a sparrow-sized stick fell on the wire, breaking the proverbial camel's back, where the camel in question is my block.
The road from my dead end street was rendered practically impassible by fallen wires and branches, and the train into NYC lost power so it was shut down. Accordingly I missed Mangum's show that night at Town Hall. Making matters worse: I had the tickets and Ticketmaster would not let my friend pick up tickets at will call. Ticketmaster sucks. Luckily he got a ticket on craigslist.
I did, however, make it to the November 6 show at Loew's Landmark Theater in Jersey City. Here's proof:
Parenthetically, FOG:TB Marls is a huge fan of Paul Sorvino's work and has every album he ever put out, so I'm sure he went to the show on November 4. I too am a fan of Paul Sorvino's work of a different ilk but I doubt that this was part of the concert.
While waiting outside for my friend I saw all manner of hipsters, smoothsters, theater chicks (huzzah!), wannabe bike messengers, oldsters, and (a surprising number of) youngsters. Highlights included the dreaded fat hipster in skinny jeans, a guy of the preposterous angry-tough-hipster phenotype working the door, and the rare former hipster turned financial type and his financial type fiancee who just left a tasting for their wedding to meet up with his greasy hipster childhood friends. While waiting to get our tickets and regaling my friend with a story about zin-laws' trip to a Willie Nelson concert that concluded with "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die" the financial type fiancee was in line ahead of us and she turned around and starting throwing back midrange (natch) by asking if I was talking about Tupac, and explained how Tupac's ashes "were smoked by his homies." I explained that "Yeah that was me, I snorted the ashes." She liked this but the financial type didn't and dragged her away.
Also outside was a rare chubby black hipster trying to sell an extra ticket for $10, then trying to give it away for free, then offering to let people stab him in exchange for taking the ticket from him. I thought it was funny but some people get scared when an excited young black man uses the word "stab" in any context and the ticket went unclaimed. His friend noted that his ticket to a previous Mangum show had a typo, spelling the name "Magnum" and noted that "That's a fucking awesome name!" so he clearly reads G:TB.
Then I got inside. The show was much better than I expected. Stunningly, Mangum sounds exactly like he does on wax (or whatever fixed medium you prefer). He also displayed amazing breath control. There were no signs that his hiatus hurt him.
Here's the setlist. He played from a chair surrounded by four accoustic guitars and was alone except for when a garden gnome of a man appeared from the shadows to play the flugelhorn along with an oboist who might have been the little girl from the No Rain video, now fully grown, for "April 8th". He interacted with the crowd much more than I expected for such a notorious recluse. Because the show was entirely accoustic, many of the songs sounded different from the recorded versions but it was easier to appreciate the lyrics, many of which are absolute abstract poetry.
The whole show only lasted about an hour including the encore but it was well worth my $35. It was a bit like seeing Barry Sanders take the field in 2011 and playing exactly as he did in 1991, or seeing an Ivory Billed Woodpecker pecking the shit out of some wood.
Before "Little Birds" Mangum noted, without a stitch of sarcasm, that "I don't perform this song live very often." My friend and I laughed but the couple next to us were rolling too hard to see the humor.
Mangum encouraged people to sing along if they knew the words, and Squeaky told me this would happen based on the show he went to earlier, and if you've ever been to a show with Squeaky you're familiar with the following pattern of events: (1) a popular song begins, (2) a fan (typically a young woman) gets excited and starts singing along, (3) Squeaky knots his face into a dour scowl and loudly proclaims "I didn't come here for a fucking singalong!" So when the doofus behind me started singing along to "In the Aeroplaine Over the Sea" I pulled a Squeaky. He didn't stop singing.
The performance I enjoyed the least, surprisingly, was "Holland 1945" which normally gives me goosebumps. For whatever reason it wasn't as effective when performed accoustically. And every doofus in the room sang along, which may have muted the goosebump factor.
The performance I enjoyed the most was "Gardenhead" which has a bit of a Soundgardenish feel as recorded on "On Avery Island". For whatever reason it was even better when performed accoustically. Not a single person sang along (it's a bit of a deep cut, to the extent that a guy with two albums can have a deep cut) which may have enhanced the goosebump factor.
I encourage you to see Jeff Mangum when he comes to a theater near you. You can expect a short show based almost entirely on a shallow bench of songs from his two NMH albums (I say "almost" because he apparently covered Roky Erickson in his Town Hall show). But what the show lacks in length and depth is made up for in virtuosity; it's less a concert than a poetry reading put to music. You'll have a good time.