Editor's Note: There are no pictures of Mangum's performance in this concert review, for two reasons. First, the helpful concert staff threatened confiscation of cell phones or cameras if any shots were taken. Secondly, as I'll hopefully assert in this review, pictures from this show would do an excellent job of watering down the overall experience, putting an inaccurate visual stamp on one of the best two hour spans of my life.
A realist painter could not have stroked oil to canvas as beautifully as the natural surroundings of Asbury Park illuminated Mangum's performance Monday night. Six-foot breakers hurled themselves from the overcast horizon line, crashing onto the barren sand, sending tired seagulls backward toward the boardwalk. The icy nip to the night air only served to augment he shroud of beautiful decay that surrounds this entire section of shoreline. The convention hall stands as a circus-like relic of a bygone time period of penny-arcades and cotton candy, which incorporates the, perhaps, only visual backdrop I'd ever need for a Mangum show. A quick two hundred yards north of The Stone Pony, the venue could not have been better suited for the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman, whose iconic juxtaposition of celtic, big-top inspired sonics and introspective, inspired lyricism has kept me moving throughout the years. As I strolled back and forth on the boardwalk prior to the performance, I kept looping the commentary, "this is exactly as it should be." The old-timey creak of the boards, the squawking bird patrol, and decaying carnival artisan shops didn't steal the show this night, but served as Mangum's amplifiers, his backing band. See, we opted for the Monday night show for exactly this reason. This was Mangum's solo performance, and the mere thought of seeing Flavor Flav yuck-yucking down THAT boardwalk, prior to THIS kind of performance makes me shudder. But, this night. The grey skies, local color, and the salty grime of aged wear and tear were right for the bill. If Jeff was about to share his work with the masses again, I wanted to give him my full attention. For anyone that hit the Monday night show, this decision was well-rewarded.
For starters, there is very little press surrounding this show, as most concertgoers opted for the fanfare of the first two performances on Friday and Sunday, which (as far as I can tell) were centered around Mangum and one guitar, fueled by a healthy mixture of Avery Island and Aeroplane, piggybacked by one cover per evening. Not to take anything away from the magic of the first two shows (I'm sure there was plenty), but Monday's performance held a tense aura of mysticism and beauty. I'm unsure if the evening was the result of Mangum "warming up" in the first two sessions, or if he purposely waited for the hoopla to die down to pull out his best post-2000 performance. To begin, Mangum's piercing voice was completely on key, warbling through "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" to start this show with a symbolic statement, placing eyes backward on his final performances (he began with "Oh Comely" on Friday). Seeing that the setlists for the first two nights were more or less the same, anyone in attendance knew this set was going to be marked with some special differences.
Mangum both requires and commands emotional attention even on recorded material, so the live versions of these songs force a kind of stunning rapture in listeners. The standards were played, and I can't really summate the emotional response of the connection he made with us on Monday. From my own personal perspective, I sat on the verge of tears through each track, half because I was excited to finally be able to join Mangum on his journey in person, and half because of the remarkable beauty one voice and one guitar can create. "Oh Comely" rattles the soul, and to hear it live and in-person is an experience words cannot describe. As mentioned with reviews of the previous performances, Mangum spoke to us, and goaded us to sing-along, which was awkward at first, but grew into a sort of communal experience by the show's end. "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" and "Two-Headed Boy" were belted out by dazed fans, but the sound levels never once allowed the voices to outdrone the man on stage. I was secretly glad for this, but was also startled and surprised at how much I enjoyed hearing everyone sing. It's as if Jeff required us to speak to him, and most in the audience, including myself, began the night as watchful and wary fans, not knowing if one false move might send him back into the shadows. As the transaction continued, a bright light emerged in the atmosphere, as fans began to realize that this wasn't some sort of money-making ploy or kind of "fan-forced" tour. Mangum's enjoyment and resiliency was unexpected but entirely uplifting. His banter with the audience was light-hearted, calm, and full of purpose. On one occasion, a guy right behind me shouted out through the silent hall, "Are you enjoying this again?" Without batting an eye, Mangum replied, "Oh, very much so. I enjoyed giving that to you." I almost punched the guy for taking such a dangerous risk, but the reply forced a near standing ovation. What's important is that Mangum is sharing again, and on Monday, everyone in the hall realized that he absolutely wants this, and for the first time, perhaps in his entire career, he is enjoying (as much as Jeff Mangum can) the limelight.
After 15 years of relative silence, Mangum spun through "Holland, 1945," "Ghost," the "King of Carrot Flowers" suite, and "Engine" with as much depth and meaning as the day each were recorded. "Most" came to hear these songs from the Aeroplane sessions unfurl before their eyes, and the transaction between artist and audience really clicked for me. For years, I've been listening to Aeroplane at least once per week and it has become a part of me, part of my sonic mental health. For me, this was about finally being able to close a chapter in my life. I was able to take part in a genius artist transmitting his craft in its rawest state. To me, this was more than an exciting concert – it really was and will remain a lifelong memory. A part of me strongly believes that Mangum requires us as much as we require him, and something is closing with all of these performances. Something brilliant and moving. Equally, something is being born, as well, and that is the connection between giver and receiver – one that never quite was able to come to fruition early on. It's been a long wait, but I don't believe anyone in the audience minded allowing Mangum the time to find peace with giving his art away.
As most understand, the way Mangum was thrust into the limelight after Aeroplane is probably a sore spot that took a long time to heal all the way through. What was amazing about Monday's show is how much passion he provoked with the songs from Avery Island. These, undoubtedly, represent a time period that we may all one day retrospectively view as the shining moment of his early career. The strums moved faster and with more emphasis (if possible) as he sent these songs into the venue. The draped strands of orange Christmas lights on the black backdrop made the lone spotlight shine brighter on Mangum as he ripped through gripping renditions of "Gardenhead, "A Baby for Pree," and "Song Against Sex." There's a certain amount of relaxed peace that he applies to these songs, and while they may or may have not been the songs that initially turned folks onto Mangum's genius, I'd venture a wager that not one person left the venue without "April 8th" on the brain. When I began the night's journey, I would have placed good money that the Aeroplane songs would have left their mark the most. When the aforementioned song was played, however, is when things began to get misty for me.
There was something cathartic and breathtaking when former NMH bandmate and Hawk and a Hacksaw drummer, Jeremy Barnes walked on stage and began assisting with "April 8th." A smoky and eerie hush rolled over the crowd as the long-time wait for Neutral Milk Hotel's triumphant reemergence grew a bit closer to reality. The previous two performances did not present this progression, and it all points to Mangum's comfort level. As the sounds soared into the upper rafters of the hall, the audience sat stunned, but rife with excitement at what we were lucky enough to witness. The closing song of the encore, marked with one big bass drum beat, nearly pushed my heart into my throat. When a full horn section, big carnival bass drum, and accordion troupe walked onto the stage for "The Fool," everything sort of moved in waves for me. There couldn't have been a better ending to the show, and yet it also signified that something bigger is on the horizon. I worried for a long, long time that if Mangum ever came back into the spotlight that it might somehow dim the legacy. I'm going to assert that, actually, I'm even more excited for what comes next.
The allegorical "Little Birds," performance, at least for me, completed the catharsis, and more importantly, it seemed to do so for Mangum, as well. He asked the audience if they'd like to hear a song he had not played live since 1998, and I gripped the sides of my seat. The last written song post-Aeroplane is obviously taut with the very close and personal anxieties he faced when he gave his art to an audience he didn't necessarily ask for – one that, it seems in his mind, may have 'broken into pieces' or stomped on his work as if it were their own. The intimate artist-to-audience transaction was completely in perfect synchronization this time, however, and Mangum's decision to play this deeply emotional song points to two things. First, that he's battled, and perhaps defeated, some of the challenges that pushed him away from center stage. He alluded to how it's taken him a long time to come to terms with the material in this song and as he strummed it, it's as if each person in the crowd was running a victory lap with him. Although, what is most significant is that he's letting the transaction happen now, and he's, by all means, enjoying it. Aside: As I sat here and wrote this final paragraph, the internets became aflutter with links to Mangum streaming live from the Occupy Wall Street rally (See Video Below). At the tail end of hearing "Oh Comely" for the second time in just under 24 hours, I'm undoubtedly sort of confused at the sudden resurgence, but I think everyone involved in the music world desperately needs this. Noteworthy is how much Jeff is smiling. This is an artist at peace with his muse and one that is finding value in sharing it with other people. This is a big fucking deal.