Concert Review: Jeff Mangum at Harvard’s Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA
Jeff Mangum Rating:
Harvard’s Sanders Theater
September 9, 2011
Reviewed by: Dorise Gruber
If you prophesied one year ago that I was going to get to see Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum in concert, I would’ve spat beer in your face and razzed you that Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain should headline, since that would’ve seemed equally plausible. The first of two Boston shows with entry protection as if for a secret vault, scoring a ticket to this show was the indie equivalent of winning a Willy Wonka ticket – the mystique of Mangum’s rapid rise to fame and subsequent disappearance from the limelight back in 1998 has involuntarily netted him an even more rabid fandom, securing his position as a martyr to his art, guaranteeing true idol standing. To catch him in a venue as intimate and beautiful as Harvard’s Sanders Theater (Neutral Uke Hotel’s Michael J. Epstein aptly described the venue as “the inside of a roll-up desk”) and to see him on such an abbreviated tour, the show was so surreal I find it hard to believe it even existed.
The opening quartet, New York’s American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), set the tone for the show, playing melancholy-yet-bright modern and quirky classical music, mirroring the sorrow and hope juxtaposed throughout so many of Mangum’s epics. With synchronized swaying like willows in the breeze, their eeriest melody steadily looped an old man’s unaffected lilt, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” Since the seats were filled with zealous NMH fans, the relation to “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts 2 & 3” where Mangum wails “I love you Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do” was clear, and tied together the two sets neatly.
Mangum walked out to jubilant, ravenous applause, donning the same grunge look he would have fifteen years ago. He sat down to a relatively naked set: a chair, a mic, a music stand, two monitors, and four guitars. When he began to strum the first few chords of my favorite Neutral Milk Hotel song, “Oh, Comely,” even though the audience probably knew every word, people were too incredulous to utter a sound. It wasn’t until he started on his 4th song, title track from his seminal album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, that he encouraged us to sing along. Voices echoed around the concert hall, but never loudly enough to drown out Mangum himself. His iconic voice sounded like it was stripped directly from the album, and we were just surrounding him in a giant Kumbaya circle of Neutral Milk Hotel love.
In the middle of “A Baby for Pree,” Mangum’s mic cut out, and without missing a beat he walked out from behind the mic to the front of the stage, crouched down, and belted the remainder of the song while the audience coaxed him along. While it may have been a major technical fluke, it made for one of the more memorable moments of the concert.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the concert, though, was after the first set was done, and after the one-song encore was done too. People were not leaving. They stayed and cheered for several minutes. The house lights went up. The house music went on. But this only fueled the crowd to cheer harder, drum-rolling on the pews, stomping, clapping, cheering constantly — I have never seen a post-encore reaction like that before, but with the crowd staying put and a lack of billy clubs or pepper spray to scatter them, I don’t think Mangum had a choice in the matter of coming out for a second encore. He sheepishly returned after the several minutes of applause, and without a mic grabbed his chair and guitar, trotted up to the front of the stage, and began to strum “Two-Headed Boy.” The audience sang along in hushed tones, but we could hear him projecting clearly and wholly, even without the mic. The entire concert was remarkable, but that moment was truly spectacular.
With so many years away from performing, this concert was exactly what it should have been. As much as we all love Neutral Milk Hotel, I don’t think people were looking for a reunion tour of the band. It was Mangum who split, and Mangum who needed to reclaim his songs — a solo show seems precisely the way to conquer whatever made him vanish in the first place. Lucky for us, this show was a victory for Mangum and his fans alike.
Two-Headed Boy, Pt 2
I Love the Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Song Against Sex
A Baby for Pree
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
King of Carrot Flowers, Pt 1
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts 2 & 3