Indie Rock Worship at Jeff Mangum’s Sold-Out Run

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Jeff MagnumJeff Mangum’s two sold-out shows at the Loew’s Jersey theater in Journal Square on November 5 and 6 resembled a church service more than a rock concert.

The 1,500-strong audience sat quietly throughout both performances; the artist sat too, lit from above, on a bare stage flanked by four acoustic guitars. The audience applauded politely after each song; sometimes they clapped as the familiar chords of some cherished old favorite began, too. Once or twice — following Mangum’s earnest entreaties — the crowd attempted to sing along, although even that sounded more like hymns in a cathedral than generational anthems at a big rock show.

Worship may be too strong a word to describe the relationship between Mangum and his fans, but barely so. For the uninitiated, Jeff Mangum has long been indie rock’s J.D. Salinger. Under the name Neutral Milk Hotel, he released two near-perfect albums of transcendental pop, 1996’s lo-fi On Avery Island (made on a four-track recorder in a friend’s bedroom,) and the more expansive In The Aeroplane Under The Sea in 1996, which fleshed out Mangum’s acoustic guitar-driven folk-pop with horns, reeds, bagpipes and singing saw.

And then Mangum disappeared, a near recluse for more than a decade, surfacing only occasionally to perform at a benefit, or contribute a track to one of Merge Records’ anniversary compilations. Neutral Milk Hotel acquired its own underground mythology, discovered and embraced by new generations of listeners who despaired at never having had the chance to hear these magical songs performed live.

That all changed last year, when Mangum unexpectedly emerged from his cocoon and performed about a dozen dates around the country, followed by a high-profile appearance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in Asbury Park in September. The first Loew’s date was announced and sold out quickly last February; a second show was added a month ago and also sold out.

The ATP appearance stole a bit of the Jersey City shows’ thunder, but the fact that the Loew’s hadn’t hosted live music in several years — after successful concerts by the Magnetic Fields, Yo La Tengo, Bright Eyes and the Decemberists — was notable in and of itself.

Built in 1929 as one of the first great movie palaces for the new age of talkies, Loew’s Jersey City boasts excellent acoustics, and its Italian baroque architecture and high domed ceiling remain impressive, especially in today’s era of no-frills multiplexes.

Mangum himself stopped several times during both nights to mention how happy he was to be performing in the theater and how beautiful it was; on Sunday, he went on to add that he’d like to come back with a full band someday, which was met by enthusiastic applause.

Mangum has not talked about his long absence from music nor has he publicly addressed whether these appearances will lead to a full-fledged return to writing, recording, and touring. But obviously that’s what his fans are hoping for.

In the meantime, they had to be content with what Mangum was willing to offer. At Loew’s, as at all of his recent performances, he stuck to a 15-song set list (including two encores) that only varied slightly from night to night and lasted about an hour. Dressed casually in khakis, a blue work shirt and a tweed cap, he looked exactly the same at both shows (perhaps that’s why he bans all photography, even cell phone snapshots, at his public appearances).

Mangum did switch his set lists around a bit; on Saturday, he encored with “Two Headed Boy;” on Sunday, he opened with it, and then reprised it as one of the encores, along with the seldom heard “Ferris Wheel on Fire.” Saturday’s encores included “Engine,” a fan favorite released post-Neutral Milk Hotel for a Merge compilation; several fans loudly requested it on Sunday, but inexplicably, Mangum chose to reprise “Two Headed Boy.”

Folksinger Scott E. Spillane — who with his bushy white beard looked like Santa decked out in Johnny Cash’s all-black wardrobe — opened both shows, and reappeared briefly (along with a female clarinetist) to play “April 8th” on flugelhorn. On Sunday, the clarinetist also played on the set-closing “Ghost.” Spillane performed in the original lineup of Neutral Milk Hotel.

But other than those brief guest appearances, the evening’s entertainment consisted of Jeff Mangum’s haunting vocals and his acoustic guitar. He never bothered to assay leads or pick out a melody; every song consisted of strummed folk chords.

There is in Mangum an otherworldliness and a timelessness born out of his affinity for archaic tropes — sea shanties and Olde English drinking songs, echoes of Nick Drake and the Mekons, and psychedelic lyrics that recall the early Pink Floyd and Roky Erikson. (Mangum had performed a Roky Erikson cover several times on tour but skipped it at the Loew’s shows.)

Many of Mangum’s songs segue into extended non-verbal mantras — dee dee dees and la la las — that take on a shamanistic quality. And throughout the set, he made a point to show that he could still hit and maintain the high notes of his beguiling melodies.

Perhaps he should be forgiven after so many years out of the spotlight, but Mangum seems to have as limited a repertoire of stage banter as he does songs. On both nights at Loew’s, he asked the audience to sing along to “Holland 1945″ (Saturday night’s singalong was louder); explained that he had set aside “Little Birds” for a decade and only started playing it again recently; mentioned how beautiful the theater was, and asked the crowd “Are you happy?”

The answer on both nights was clearly yes.

Set Lists
Saturday:
Oh Comely
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1
The King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2-3
Two Headed Boy Pt. 2
Little Birds
Song Against Sex
Naomi
April 8th
Holland 1945
Ghost

Encores:
Engine
Two-Headed Boy

Sunday:
Two Headed-Boy
King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1
King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 2-3
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Song of Sex
Oh Comely
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Little Birds
A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You
Naomi
April 8th
Holland 1945
Ghost

Encores:
Ferris Wheel On Fire
Two-Headed Boy

Jim Testa

the editor of Jersey Beat, an online fanzine that has been covering the local music scene (first in print, now on the web) since 1982. He is also the host of Rock N Roll Gas Station and writes regularly for the Star-Ledger, Ghetto Blaster, and other publications.

  • http://twitter.com/suppli Jeff Frank Petriello

    last night’s show started with two headed boy part 2.