Whenever I asked people I knew if they were going to the Jeff Mangum concert at Neighborhood Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 31, many would answer my question with another: “Who?”
Jeff Mangum? Of Neutral Milk Hotel fame? Who created “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” one of indie rock’s holiest of grails? April’s favorite band?
Mangum is not a household name, but his former band’s impact on rock ‘n’ roll is undeniable. Win Butler claims that one of the biggest reasons Arcade Fire signed to Merge Records is because he knew they released “Aeroplane.”
Bands such as The Decemberists owe aspects of their sound to Neutral Milk Hotel’s psychedelic folk-punk.
It isn’t wholly ridiculous to claim that the rabid attention that “Aeroplane” – and Mangum himself – drew in the indie rock community in the late ‘90s, right around the dawn of music blogging and Pitchfork, helped usher in a new era of dancing about architecture.
When Mangum ambled onto the stage at Neighborhood, one could easily have confused him with any of the Noda locals.
Donning a baseball hat and sporting a long, woodsy beard, Mangum seemed downright normal; a word not used much to describe the man in stories over the years.
This is the guy who wrote “Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies, while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park?” As it turns out, it ends up being a part of the man’s charm: Mangum was affable, exchanging banter with the crowd and came across as the eccentric but nice friend who you like to hang out with but probably don’t want your parents to meet.
The set itself was fantastic. I did not know what to expect from an acoustic Mangum performance – I would hardly call myself a huge Neutral Milk Hotel fan, but like many twenty-somethings I went through a period of listening to “Aeroplane” religiously. Mangum’s voice has not weathered at all throughout the years; if anything, it’s gotten better.
Nasally but strong, his singing enraptured the hall in such a way that only the true author of these songs could have – the idea of a man strumming away on an acoustic guitar singing songs centered around Anne Frank and conjoined twins sounds like the plot to a skit on Portlandia, but with Mangum, it was downright transfixing.
Any concerns about how a sold-out audience at Neighborhood would behave during a solo performance were quelled – the crowd was largely respectful. Most people actually conceded to the venue’s request to put their phones away.
There was giddiness in the air, as many in the crowd seemed amazed that they were actually witnessing Jeff Mangum in person – a man who rarely tours, records or does press.
Much of the crowd sang along to “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers.” When one fan requested “Oh Sister,” Mangum shrugged his shoulders, said okay and switched to the guitar needed to play the song.
I found myself in awe of his ability to create such a communicative and mutually respectful vibe with the audience; solo acoustic shows can go from incredibly soul-baring to boring train wreck in short measure, but Mangum paced the set well and the strength of these songs really shone through in their acoustic setting.
The fact is these are more than quirky lo-fi indie numbers. At face value, these are just damn good pop songs filled with fever-dream lyrics and gorgeous melodies.
Prior to the show, a friend of mine said, “We’re going to see Jeff Mangum tonight,” much in the same way one would have said they were going to see Bob Dylan in 1966. It felt like more than your standard show; it seemed as though this was an event.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s music has not only withstood the test of time, its status as essential listening has clearly been cemented.
One day, my children may not appreciate my regaling them for the umpteenth time about how I caught THE Jeff Mangum as much as I enjoy my dad telling me about the time he saw Nirvana in 1993. On Thursday night, standing elbow-to-elbow with a hushed crowd, it felt like I was witnessing something special.
And that’s more than good enough.