Monday, May 7, 2012
LIVE REVIEW: Jeff Mangum at Fox Theater in Oakland, CA
"Please don't take any pictures of me... Sorry, you're a nice person." These words directed toward a camera phone-wielding audience member were the first that the crowd at the sold out Fox Theater in Oakland, CA heard out of Jeff Mangum's mouth on the night of April 9, but even though the former Neutral Milk Hotel frontman had yet to play any music, I couldn't help but feel like he had already spoken volumes about himself. A recap for those who aren't familiar with Mangum's story: as a result of the rising success Neutral Milk Hotel had been experiencing upon the release of its now legendary In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, as well as the tour that accompanied it, Mangum dropped out of the public eye before the new millenium hit, effectively forcing the band into hiatus. During the 10+ years he was virtually inactive, the enigmatic singer-songwriter made close to zero appearances on stage, a small handful of one-off shows acting as the only exceptions. Bearing this in mind, Mangum's introductory statement seems to sum up his situation quite neatly. Its former half was a testament to his sensitivity to certain kinds of pressure, and its latter half was added seemingly as a sort of amendment, as if he was trying to ensure that the audience member didn't feel offended or intimidated. This brief interaction alone encapsulated his character: a kind, goodhearted person that doesn't care for bright spotlights.
Aside from this brief introduction, Mangum jumped into his set with little hesitation. Beginning with "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2," the closing track on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, he seemed determined to maintain a casual atmosphere throughout his set. A request to the audience to "sing along if you know the words" was among numerous similar encouragements he made over the course of the show. Although I've generally not been a fan of crowd singalongs in the past, I wasn't annoyed by this particular instance. Perhaps this was due to Mangum's unparalleled ability to make even a fairly large venue such as the Fox Theater feel intimate.
Mangum followed with the uninterrupted suite that connects "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1" with "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3." He then began dipping into highlights from Neutral Milk Hotel's severely underrated debut album On Avery Island, starting with "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone." After this, Mangum took a break from Neutral Milk Hotel material to pay tribute to fellow singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston with a cover of the song "True Love Will Find You in the End." The performance shined not only as a result of the quality of the original, but also of how successfully Mangum's distinctive vocal delivery worked alongside Johnston's songwriting.
The rest of the main set saw Mangum play a few more songs from On Avery Island, namely "Naomi," "April 8th," and "Song Against Sex," as well as the remainder of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, excluding "Communist Daughter" and the title track. Songs like "Naomi" and "Oh Comely" found time for accompanying instrumentalists to shine. The former featured a cellist whom added a very nice touch to an already stunning song, and the latter saw a small horn section enter the stage, which included show opener and Mangum's former bandmate Scott Spillane. The true winning moment, however, came at the end of the penultimate song, "Two-Headed Boy." Just as the song was ending, the sound of a beating drum announced a seamless transition into the instrumental "The Fool," which follows "Two-Headed Boy" on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in a fashion admirably similar to that of this performance. An accordionist, a tambourine player, and the aforementioned horn section marched onto the stage behind the drummer, and subsequently carried the song into a fully realized and highly euphoric interpretation.
"The Fool" marked the end of the first set, but Mangum found it in his heart to play not one, but two encores. The first was comprised of Neutral Milk Hotel's relatively obscure "Ferris Wheel on Fire," which was chosen at the request of an audience member. Then, to my delight, the singer-songwriter closed this encore with the standout "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." By this point, I had already surpassed a satisfactory point of fulfillment, but just as I was preparing to leave the venue, Mangum returned once more. This time, he played the B-side to the "Holland, 1945" single, "Engine." It truly was a fantastic way to end an incredible show.
I left the venue with a sense of closure. With In the Aeroplane Over the Sea nearing fifteen years in age, yet Jeff Mangum spending the majority of these years away from the stage, I felt like I had arrived at the end of a long unfinished chapter in his trajectory. I can't help but wonder a little bit if this return to touring is a sign of any other notable musical plans for the songwriter, but ultimately, I'm just happy to have been finally given the opportunity to experience such a life-affirming performance.
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
True Love Will Find You In the End (Daniel Johnston cover)
Song Against Sex
Ferris Wheel on Fire
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea