Jeff Mangum review blog
Jeff Mangum review blog
I'm going to start this review off with something that came at the end of the show, because I don't want to bury the lede.
Before Jeff Mangum’s encore at the Maximum Ames Music Festival Saturday night, a fan yelled out, “How does it feel to be back? Where have you been?” At first the notoriously reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel singer seemed reluctant to try to summarize 12 years of his life, but then he said:
“I felt very alive in everyday life, but the world became abstract. It was like I died, in a way. I spent some time living in a cabin in the woods. It wasn’t an unhappy life. But I really love people and it’s good to be back out in the world.”
He segued into the final song of his act, “Two-Headed Boy,” by saying “Shall I pull up a couch and we can have a therapy session?” So had he just never been asked before? I did request an interview with Mangum, expecting to be told no, but maybe, just maybe it would be one of those situations where everyone is too afraid to ask the prettiest girl to the prom, so she ends up dateless.
That was not the case, I think a lot of people want to ask Jeff Mangum to the prom. But thanks to the outspoken fan at the show we got something like a "Maybe we could see a movie sometime" response.
Moving back into sequential order, The Poison Control Center kicked off the show and clearly were enthused to be there. The band is spread across four states at this point, which means former drummer Donald Curtis has sometimes filled in for Joe Terry on bass. For this show everyone was present, with Curtis and David Olson splitting drumming duties.
The group got the show off to a raucous start, with its trademark splits, headstands, crowd dives and more. A good portion of the crowd was on its feet and gathered around the stage for their set (heavy on songs from "A Collage of Impressions," which had its five year anniversary that weekend), though festival organizer informed the crowd after PCC was done that everyone would need to stay seated during The Music Tapes and Jeff Mangum. More on that in a moment.
Can I use a term like "musical freakshow" and not have it come off as an insult? I hope so, because it feels like a fitting description of The Music Tapes' stage show, and given frontman Julian Kosters' love of the circus (check out their Kickstarter-funded tour plans) I would hope he wouldn't mind. Koster took the stage with a saw in hand, while another member of the group cranked an organ that made two hands slap a keyboard.
Betwen that, a giant metronome, two banjos at once (played with violin bows), a tiny drum set and more, there was nothing by-the-numbers about the performance. As an added bonus, Koster told several lengthy, magically surreal stories between songs, that started out with something simple like walking through an Iowa cornfield only to find his grandfather blowing out a smoke polar bear, or a tale of a group of circus performers who could pull entire cities out of their mouths. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a band, it would be something like The Music Tapes.
"This is the song where I have to remember to put the mallet in my shoe." You won't hear that a Nickleback show.
Back to the request that the audience stay seated. Towards the end of the set Koster told the crowd "I don't think Jeff or I would care if you stand up." At that point most of the crowd stayed seated.
Mangum took the stage to thunderous applause and sporting a thick beard (he had been clean shaven in Minneapolis earlier this year). He kicked off his set with the 8+ minute "Oh Comely" off "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The crowd was probably as silent as I have ever heard an audience at a live show. You could have heard a pin drop.
Unfortunately, there were some feedback issues on the first few songs, which thankfully cleared up relatively quickly.
Next came "King of Carrot Flowers," and almost unnoticeably he invited the audience to come up to the stage mid song. The nearly 900 person crowd very much noticed, however, and suddenly the entire auditorium was gathered around the stage. Instantly the feel shifted from a theater performance to the kind of intimate feel you get from a show at the Vaudeville Mews.
"It's much better to have you close up," Mangum told the crowd after the song.
The crowd sang along to every lyric, though Mangum's voice - which is much stronger than the recordings might lead you to expect - dominated the room. I suspect he could have played the show without amps and mics and still have been heard clear as day.
Koster, who was a member of Neutral Milk Hotel, returned to the stage to join Mangum on singing saw for the song "Engine" and later "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The songs would have worked well on their own, but having Koster there for his part made the experience that much more memorable.
It was an oddly surreal night. A troubadour who once seemed lost to the world was there, in Ames, Iowa, playing his classic material and even cracking a few jokes. I lost track of the number of times I overheard someone saying "magical" as I made my way back out to the parking lot. It did feel that way, and it will be a tough act for Maximum Ames to top in 2013.