I’ve been trying to explain how it was to see Jeff Mangum to people who haven’t spent long hours entrenched in the gripping, creepy, stunning world of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s one of those few albums that never loses its power, no matter how many times I listen to it, and never loses that raw, forceful emotion that drives out through Mangum’s distinctive voice. Unfortunately for lovers of that and Neutral Milk Hotel’s only other album, On Avery Island, the band disbanded in 1998 and Mangum basically disappeared from the music scene.
So that’s why it was such a shock this year when shows were suddenly announced. Tickets sold out almost immediately, but somehow I ended up with two for Mangum’s October 29 performance at Town Hall in NYC. That was back in February, and October seemed incredibly far away. Then the calendar flipped and the day was here, but I still didn’t quite believe it as I trudged to 43rd Street through an early, freezing snow that had added slush to the usual misery of Times Square. This show was actually going to happen and after months of having it on my calendar, I still found that hard to believe. It’s sort of like if J.D. Salinger had out of the blue decided to give a reading, or Harper Lee came out with another book. Yet we were handing our Jeff Mangum tickets to be torn at the door and taking our seats among a crowd nervous with anticipation.
After an opening set by Olof Arnalds, a chair was brought out on stage and ringed by four guitars, tilted up like a second, expectant audience. Then Mangum came out, looking just like he’d ridden a time machine from 1998, and launched into a set that included almost every song off In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, songs everyone in the audience knew by etchings in their hearts. Everyone was reverentially silent both during and between the songs, except when Mangum asked that the audience sing along, because he said he wanted to feel like he was singing for his friends. His voice was perfect and the emotional urgency was as fresh and vulnerable as when he recorded the songs over a decade ago. When he played “Oh Comely,” it was almost like he was approaching each shaky moment of the song for the first time. After his set, he came back for a two song encore: “Two-Headed Boy” and “Engine.” The applause after his last song lasted for ages and the audience reluctantly left the theatre, going out into the cold where it was still snowing, for Halloween parties that would feel surreal. There are some moments in life that I wouldn’t mind going on forever. Watching Jeff Mangum play “Two-Headed Boy” is one of those. I almost hesitate to link to any documentation of this performance because it seems almost wrong, but I have a recording of “Oh Comely” below. At least proof that this actually happened. I just hope it isn’t the last time, but if it was, I feel lucky to have been there.
Here is the set from the show:
Two Headed Boy Pt. 2
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Song Against Sex
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
I Love The Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
A Baby for Pree
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3