Jeff Mangum stopped in Chapel Hill last night to play an acoustic set at UNC’s Memorial Hall. This was one of as handful of dates of the much anticipated return the stage of the (until recently) reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel front-man. The opener was Andrew, Scott, & Laura (Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter of Elf Power with Scott Spillane of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Gerbils). These Elephant 6 compatriots of Mangum’s played a ragged, roosty set of Elf Power and Gerbils songs, along with a few covers. The opener, the Gerbils’ White Sky, showed off Scott’s sweet, strong voice (and stayed quiet, despite the original’s Sonic Youth-y wall of distortion). Their cover of Randy Newman’s In Germany Before the War was another standout. Their somber take on It Was a Very Good Year (made famous by Frank Sinatra), was reminiscent of some of the sadder songs on the Gerbils’ The Battle of Electricity, and a perfect lead-in to Mangum’s set (as was the intermission soundtrack of some very old-school Arabic and Hindi music).
So out comes Jeff, to a small chair, on a wide stage, in the large -- and acoustically wonderful -- venue. Surrounded by four guitars, from way up in the balcony, he looked rather small for the tall (& unassuming for the influential) figure that he is. He wore what is pretty much his typical flannel shirt and engineer hat. With Mangum touring, I’m sure we’ll start seeing a lot more of that hat crowning the heads of hipsters everywhere, perhaps along with the ultra-long pageboy haircut (um, but Jeff doesn’t sport a beard… are you paying attention, hipsters?!?)
As recording of any kind was not allowed, here’s a photo from earlier in the fall which pretty much captures the scene… (photo courtesy Will Deitz and Pitchfork)
After whoops and hollers from an excited crowd, and a quick welcome from Jeff, he began with Two-headed Boy, Pt. 2 from the classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Most of the songs would come from this album, much to the delight of the audience. His voice was crystal clear and strong as ever, piercing through the wide open space of Memorial Hall like a knife.
I think he opens with this song on purpose. He has on other tour stops so far. It’s the final song from Aeroplane, which ended with him singing “But don't hate her when she gets up to leave”, and audibly putting down his guitar. That was the last we heard of these songs, and Neutral Milk Hotel, until now, when he’s picking up his guitar again. It almost felt like an apology, not that he has anything for which to apologize.
He followed by launching into the relative rocker, Holland, 1945, prodding the crowd to sing along with a knowing “You sing these at home!” A few sang… not that you could tell through the strength of Mangum’s voice dominating the theater. Some feet started tapping, and the normally sedate atmosphere of Memorial Hall began to pick up. Dragonhead / Leave Me Alone, the first of four songs he would play from the NMH debut, On Avery Island, followed. Again, Jeff prodded the crowd to participate, recalling punk rock days of yore, when crowds would even spit on the performers! “Don’t be so nice!” After a handful of shows in the past few months, he seems to be in the process of getting used to such large venues. Face it, the last time NMH toured (~13 years ago), it was mostly small to mid-sized clubs. Not long before that, it was coffee shops and house parties. But he’s adjusting.
The banter continued between songs, which was a surprise given the intimate, dark nature of most of his music. His mention that the guitar he was playing was his Grandpa’s guitar, and that it had cracked earlier that day, led to a chorus of “AWWW!” from the crowd. Cracked guitar and all, he then played the cover Engine, and resumed his insistence that we were being “too polite”. He jokingly demanded, to much laughter, “Spit on me! They spit on D. Boon!” He was referencing the late lead singer of the Minutemen, a huge influence on Jeff (and not coincidentally, hardly “punk” in musical style, but more in their approach and attitude towards music and the world).
After Engine, Mangum casually introduced the next song as “one of the last songs I wrote before I snapped”. Again, the audience laughed (this time somewhat uncomfortably). But he insisted “It was okay… it could’ve been worse!”, then imitated the crowd with a mocking “Yeah, HA HA! He snapped!”, upon which one genuine voice loudly yelled a warm “Welcome back!”
He of course was (again, surprisingly casually) referencing his much-publicized breakdown in the late ‘90s, when he mostly dropped out of the music scene for years. The song was Little Birds. With lyrics like “So I took a hammer and I nearly beat his brains in” and “I would like to leave my body and start again”, one might have been able to see the break coming. Maybe he, in a sense, did leave his body, and now has started again. (On a side note, I wonder if this song was meant as some strange counterpoint to Bob Marley’s optimistic Three Little Birds.)
We all whooped when he lept into King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1, and even began to sing along a little more. Then he unexpectedly (but really, unavoidably) segued into King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 and 3. Now, this song starts with what has always been one of the more unusual NMH lyrics – likely one of the more unusual lyrics in all of rock and roll history. Indie-rockers around the world never quite knew what to make of it (nor did Hank Hill). Certainly a hallowed indie band wasn’t preaching the Gospel! He has since expressed in interviews that while he does love Jesus Christ for his philosophy, it was meant to be more spiritual than religious, and not meant to be preachy at all.
Whatever the meaning, the power was, and still is, undeniable. After almost astonished claps and yells that the song was even about to be sung (it quickly becomes a raucous, fuzz-laden noise-fest on the album), the crowd eagerly sang along that they, too, loved Jesus Christ! The house was reaching as cathartic pitch. Between songs, applause and whoops and hollers echoed with a volume I’ve seldom, if ever, heard at a live show.
Then he launched into Ghost, with Laura sitting in on clarinet -- a hint of things to come. Naomi, also from On Avery Island, followed. At the end of Naomi, a band began to form, Andrew, Laura and Scott stepping out as they did with a bevy of horns, holding a long note that segued into April 8th… just as on Avery Island. The audience howled in appreciation. But when the long, dark, and beautiful Oh Comely began, they were as quiet as, oh, about 1,500 mice.
Two-headed Boy, Pt. 1 kicked in, and the sing-along began in earnest. When the “band” re-appeared (with a few extra “members” and instruments) and moved into the instrumental The Fool, all of us were clapping and stomping along. We were all, if for a moment, IN Neutral Milk Hotel… which is sort of the Elephant 6 mindset anyway. “Come! You’re all welcome!”
When Jeff left the stage, there was a huge, and I mean HUGE, standing ovation. For the encore, he played Song Against Sex, and the crowd began to move down in droves, turning the staid atmosphere of the large theater a bit more punk rock. The closer, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, brought the house down… especially when Scott appeared to reprise his horn solo from the album.
Despite the level of anticipation built up over a decade plus, Jeff Mangum’s set more than lived up to it. There was nothing I would have changed. My daughter described it as “spiritual”, and I couldn’t put it any better. I would hope Mangum begins to record more music. But if he doesn’t, these songs are more than enough.
Two-headed Boy, Pt. 2
Dragonhead / Leave Me Alone
King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 and 3
Two-headed Boy, Pt. 1
Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
PS: Regarding my blog title (a lyric from In the Aeroplane), Julian Koster (also of NMH) has told me that he’s sure Jeff wouldn’t mind me using the quote for my blog. Do you think I can take Jeff’s “Spit on me!” as his implicit permission to at least use his lyrics? ;)