It was that kind of night–you and your partner were both kind of sick and aching, both tired, both not looking forward to starting the week tired. Did we really want to go to this show? I mean, we bought tickets months ago but still…?
Looking back after Typhoon finished their set at Brighton Music Hall last night, the answer was so obviously and emphatically “YES!” that I’m glad we at least said ‘I guess’.
Getting into the venue a few minutes before Typhoon went on, we slipped into the audience behind the two post-college dudes on a man-date and next to the extremely differently heighted couple on perhaps their third date. The band came on the stage in all their glory: two drummers, two violins, one flugelhorn, two trumpets (one doubling on keyboards and guitar), one bass, one guitar, one ukulele/ glockenspiel, and Kyle, the lead singer on guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano.
The crowd–though it was a Sunday night–was packed in and excited. The band and the audience fed off each other immediately and it quickly became an atmosphere of astounded magic. The band played excitedly, skillfully, beautifully and the crowd collectively felt like it was witnessing something wonderful and unique. The dozen instruments and as many voices blended into a wave coming off of the stage, paradoxically more together and more individual than on the records.
After each song there was an increasing amount of applause to the point where, with a few songs left, the audience was cheering like it was demanding an encore. Kyle had to say something like “Thanks so much! We still have more songs.”
The end of the set came too soon and there was thunderous applause calling for an encore this time, which the band obliged. Three more delicate, lively, wonderful, and raucous songs later and the band was done and people were streaming back the merch table and out into the cool autumn day. My feet felt like they were hardly touching the pavement.
Charles Bradley says “I love you all” and I believe him. We all believe him. Then, as if there is any doubt, he walks to the edge of the stage, looking for a moment like he’ll take a stage dive, climbs off the stage and starts hugging people. He makes his way through the crowd for what seems like a long time, just hugging his now fans.
63 year old Charles Bradley, after years of poverty, living on the streets, being a chef in Alaska and a handy-man in New York, and occasionally playing a James Brown-like show as “Black Velvet”, finally released his debut album No Time for Dreaming last year. (He also released a few 7″s starting in 2002.) It was among the best debuts of 2011 and one of the best entries in the retro soul genre of bands recalling the sounds of R&B in the ’60s and ’70s.
Walking off the college-student-filled streets of Allston, into the sold out Brighton Music Hall, I saw DJ PJ Gray spinning some slamming soul 45″s on his turntables near the soundbooth. I took this as a good sign. Finding my way through the mostly young, mostly white crowd, I found a spot near the front on the left side of the stage. The Extraordinaires, Charles Bradley’s backing band–guitar, bass, drums, organ, tenor saxophone and trumpet–for this tour, took the stage to average applause. All young and mostly white, they launched into an instrumental groove that quickly dispelled any doubts if they could play authentic soul and funk–these were obviously kids who were not only talented at their instruments but were well versed in the classics they were emulating.
After a couple instrumental numbers, the organ player came to the main microphone and, in soul show style, played the hype man and introduced the singer, ending with “Give it up for ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Charles Bradley!” The room filled with cheers.
Bradley, smiling and wearing a ’70s style three-piece suit, greeted the crowd as the band launched into the next song. Rhythm section grooving, organ adding accents and horns nailing backup lines, Bradley’s voice quickly soared above it all. With James Brown-like screeches and wails, he blew through songs, full-voiced and using a deep well of emotion and experience to give appropriate and fantastic weight to his words. By the third song, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “This is why I go to live music.” This is that once-a-year (or more) live show that buoys the spirit and leaves one with new respect not only for the artist but music in general.
Bradley sang and gestured and balled up his fists against his chest, but he also knelt, pantomimed his cross to bear using the microphone stand and, of course, danced–sometimes slick, practiced moves and others that seemed like he came up with on the spot. He did fast feet, went down in splits, and ground his hips.
Midway through the show, Bradley left the stage while the band did another instrumental groove. Bradley reemerged having gone through a costume change–shiny pants and an African-print vest that split open at the bottom to reveal his slight gut.
As the show went on, the band hit their hard notes harder, their soft notes softer and Bradley’s anguish, pain–one song is about his brother being shot and killed; another about drifting around trying to find a job–and joy all worked themselves out simultaneous. Here was a man who had led a tough life, struggling and striving to be a performer for years, finally getting his chance to perform in front of sold out audiences. And this audience accepted this and returned with an ecstatic atmosphere–cheers, shouts, hands-in-the-air.
The set ended in a frenzy with the band in a loud, hard groove and Bradley on one knee talk-singing the words to the Lord’s Prayer, transported perhaps somewhere between the Lord and the audience for that moment. He stood up, declared his love for all of us and went into the audience for that multitude of hugs.
The show seemed over, the band left the stage and Bradley was somewhere in the crowd, but eventually the loud cheers brought the band back to the stage. After one last, quick instrumental, Bradley returned to the stage for “Why is it So Hard,” the anguished burning ballad from No Time for Dreaming, letting his own anguish pour out, leaving the audience nearly speechless.
At the end of it all, there was only one thing that could be said: I love you, too, Charles Bradley.
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.
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 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:
Two Headed Boy, Part II
I Love the Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (singalong)
Song About Sex
Baby for Pree/ Glow Into You (finished unamplified after mic went out)
Ghost (singalong at the end)
King of Carrot Flowers, Parts I-III (singalong)
Two Headed Boy (unamplified, singalong)
Here’s a video of the second encore from this show. Definitely worth watching.
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.