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Live Review: Jeff Mangum, October 29, 2011, The Town Hall – New York, NY



Years ago when I began diving into the world of indie rock, I ruled out the possibility of ever seeing Neutral Milk Hotel or the reclusive Jeff Mangum — in any form — perform live. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea would be seen by many as the “crowning gem” of the genre and since the band’s breakup, Mangum had been as elusive a figure as any, only showing his face at Elephant 6 reunions at random.

In recent years, however, Mangum began poking his head out of his shell, first by playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs at others’ shows, to playing full sets unannounced, to playing ATP and embarking on a small tour of his own. About two weeks ago he even stopped by Zuccotti Park for a brief performance at Occupy Wall Street. Naturally, after missing him at ATP, I had to catch him in New York.

I trekked out into the snowy New York night (the first pre-Halloween snowfall since 1958!) and made it to New York City’s Town Hall theater just off of Times Square. The Town Hall hosts a wide array of events including Broadway shows, choirs, orchestras, jazz bands, comedians — hell, you can even catch Rush Limbaugh there at the end of the month (I implore you not to). And while the venue often does do acoustic shows like this, I didn’t really expect to be seated for this momentous occasion.

Opening for Mangum was Ólöf Arnalds, an Icelandic singer-songwriter, who alternated between guitars and a ukulele-like charango. She performed in both English and Icelandic, bantering with the audience throughout her songs as she plucked her strings and arpeggiated her chords before entering into the next verse. The 35-minute set was certainly soothing, and truly showcased Arnalds’ talents — especially her closing: a mic-less, a cappella version of an Irish folk tune — but I couldn’t help but feel anxious throughout the whole set, eagerly anticipating what was to follow.

Mangum soon appeared on stage and the entire theater erupted in applause. Then — absolute silence as he opened up with Aeroplane‘s closer “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two.” Perhaps it was out of awe, or maybe it was just he nature of the venue, but for his first three songs (“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “Song Against Sex”) there was complete silence except for applause between songs. Mangum commented, “You don’t have to be so quiet,” and went into “Gardenhead” as the cheers began.

Next was the eight-minute epic, “Oh Comely,” which yet again brought the crowd to silence as Mangum clenched his eyes shut and bellowed through the darkness of the theater, going the extra mile by holding notes before carrying into the final section of the song.

After another solemn number, “I Love the Living You” (a Roky Erickson cover), Mangum returned to Aeroplane again with “Ghost.” The silence had become prevalent again, leading Mangum to engage the audience to get them to make some noise: “Now fucking sing!”

The cheering and banter from there on continued, with the audience’s singing becoming more and more amplified as Mangum played through all parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers” without break, and climaxed with his last song of the set, “Holland, 1945.” As he played those opening chords the room suddenly came alive; it seemed as if ever single person in attendance knew all the words as was singing along. It was truly an enthralling moment.

After a standing ovation, Mangum returned with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. One” and b-side “Engine” before taking off into the night, leaving the audience standing and cheering for a good five minutes before they were disappointed by the sight of tech crew taking his set-up apart.

Although the audience lulled at times, Mangum put on a fantastic performance and managed to get us all roaring together to make for a truly ghostly experience. Despite this all — and it pains me to say it — Mangum’s “dee-dees” will never compare to Scott Spillane’s trumpet work, and however great the songs stood on their own, a full-backed band performing them would be worlds apart. Unfortunately, I don’t think a full reunion will ever happen.

Hopefully I’ll be eating my words in a year or two’s time.

Setlist
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Song Against Sex
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Oh Comely
I Love the Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
Ghost
A Baby for Pree
Naomi
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
Holland, 1945

Two-Headed Boy Pt. One
Engine


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