jeff mangum @ sander theatre (review, setlist, etc) + new neutral milk hotel box set to come

September 14th, 2011

On Friday I saw Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, recently out of his self-imposed reclusion, play an acoustic set at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.

In the Aeroplane over the Sea is an album of great importance–perhaps so Important that it needs to be capitalized–to me, as it is to many people, so you would think that I was unbelievably excited about this show in the days leading up to it.

I was excited but I tried to keep things realistic. Jeff Mangum is a guy that wrote some songs–they happen to be very very good songs–but they’re still just songs. I read some reports from earlier shows and it seemed like he might not actually be every fan’s hermit-savior, despite how nice the mythology of that idea is.

ACME, a string quartet opened the show. They played a nice version of the Erik Satie’s lovely Gymnopédie No.1 and an extended version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Perhaps in a different setting I might have enjoyed them more but I was getting antsy for the main act.

Sanders Theatre is a 1166 capacity wooden theater inside Memorial Hall–a list of all the Harvard students to die in the Civil War is etched into the stone of the lobby–on Harvard’s campus. Completed in 1875, the wood has the weight of history in it; it also was built for an era prior to amplification and the natural acoustics of the space are pretty amazing.

During the time between the string quartet, the anticipation built up in the theater. With tickets selling out within a few minutes of going on sale six months ago, you knew the people in the theater were true fans, perhaps even in the original fanatical meaning. Minutes away, one of my and their favorite artists was coming out to play his first songs[1] in the area since Neutral Milk Hotel’s July 24, 1998 show at the Middle East.

Mangum came out to thunderous applause with some people even giving him a standing ovation before he even played a single note. He sat down in a plain chair surrounded by four acoustic guitars and with a small music stand just to his right. Wearing a brown-and-white plaid shirt, brown corduroys and a black fisherman’s hat over his chin-length hair, he looked not too different from what he did thirteen years prior in the few promotional photos now floating around the internet.

As the applause died down, he started into the somber epic “Oh Comely”, which lasts 8+ minutes on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and ends with someone in the studio yelling “Holy Shit!” While the performance was immediately good–deft guitar playing and singing in a clear but slightly nasal voice–the expletives likely to be going through audience members’ heads was about seeing Jeff Mangum live rather than about this particular song.

That quickly changed for me on the second song, “Two Headed Boy, Part II.” On the album version (as well as some live versions like that on Live at Jittery Joe’s) he sings in a fragile, almost-broken voice which was lacking on Friday, which left me initially disappointed, but by the time he sings “In my dreams you’re alive and crying// As your mouth moves in mine soft and sweet” I had chills and I was forgetting any comparisons to the album.

Much like the rest of the night, the end of the song was met with a loud round of applause and shouts which seemed to bring out a big grin on Mangum’s face.

After a disappointing miss with the Roky Erickson cover “I Love the Living You”, he invited the audience to sing along to “In the Aeroplane over the Sea”. In a cathartic moment for me and likely many others, we sang along, knowing all the lyrics notes and inflections by heart. (We even sang the fluegelhorn solo later in the song.)

A man from the balcony yelled “I can now die happy!” Mangum had him repeat it twice more, apparently not able to hear him. After considering for a moment, he said he was singing well that night and that he could also die happy.

After the On Avery Island opener “Song About Sex”, he played another track from that album, “Baby for Pree”. With some feedback and some issues with too much reverb on the vocals, the sound hadn’t been perfect all night, but it reached a new low during this song when the microphone cut out immediately. Jeff turned this potential problem into perhaps one of the most awesome moments of the night, walking to the front of the stage while continuing to play, taking a knee and finishing the song unamplified. The acoustics of the hall proved to be excellent as I could hear clearly from my 3rd-to-last-row seat in the balcony.

The set continued. He played a long-time favorite “Naomi” and had us sing along at the end of “Gardenhead”. “King of Carrot Flowers, Parts I-III” quickly became a singalong, with more people in the 20s and 30s hipster set heartily singing ‘I Love You Jesus Christ’ than has probably been seen in a long time. He finished the set with the favorite “Holland, 1945” which lacked a little bit of the urgency (and all of the distortion) of the recording, but still sounded great.

After leaving the stage and a short amount of booming applause, he returned to play “Holland, 1945″‘s b-side, “Engine”. Then he left the stage again to loud applause.

He obviously hadn’t planned on playing a second encore, but the applause continued. After a few minutes, they brought up the house lights. The applause continued. After a couple more minutes, they started playing some music over the house speakers. The applause continued. It continued, in fact, till Mangum probably had few other options but to return to the stage.

He grabbed his chair and a guitar and brought them to the front of the stage to play a song unamplified. The audience’s focus was intense as he played “Two Headed Boy”. People sang along but quietly. Even in the balcony I could hear his voice ringing out with a supporting chorus of a thousand fans all pleading a surreal story of freaks and sex and love and World War II atrocities. Getting quiet to hear the end, Mangum told us “sing it” and we did. “Dah dee dah dee dee dee// Dee dee dah dee dee dee dee deee// Dee dee dah dee dee dee dee dee deee.” And then we walked into the night, hearts swollen and satisfied, seeing the moon a bit bigger and the sky a bit closer.

Jeff Mangum @ Sanders Theatre, September 9, 2011 setlist:

  1. Oh Comely
  2. Two Headed Boy, Part II
  3. I Love the Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
  4. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (singalong)
  5. Song About Sex
  6. Baby for Pree/ Glow Into You (finished unamplified after mic went out)
  7. Naomi
  8. Ghost (singalong at the end)
  9. Gardenhead
  10. King of Carrot Flowers, Parts I-III (singalong)
  11. Holland 1945
  12. [Encore 1]
  13. [Encore 2]
    Two Headed Boy (unamplified, singalong)

Here’s a video of the second encore from this show. Definitely worth watching.

For coverage of the other Boston-area show and some audio, check out this site. Pitchfork also has audio from the Toronto show.

If you haven’t heard, a vinyl box set with all of the release Neutral Milk Hotel along with 16 unreleased tracks will be out in November. (The unreleased tracks will also be available for digital download.) You can pre-order it now (and hear an unreleased track) at the Neutral Milk Hotel website.

[1] Not entirely true: I saw Mangum play with Circulatory System at the Middle East Upstairs in 2001.