Five minutes into the ovation, I had already left my second floor seat. Ostensibly in the states for the wedding of a friend from high school, I texted Ben, who was waiting for me in Harvard Square to begin the 90-minute drive to the house on the Cape where we and our friends were staying. I told him that I would surely be there in a couple minutes, that the crowd would give up.
All the same, I ducked into the first floor, in the hall behind the seats. This was not an unsavvy crowd; they knew how unlikely they were to prevail against the Rule of the House Lights. They kept on anyway. Maybe it’s because the show was in and of itself so unlikely, one that for years none of us imagined would ever happen. Jeff Mangum had played for us that night, giving us 13 songs from the two albums that made up the Neutral Milk Hotel discography, and then he played us “Engine,” the aforementioned B-side. On the one hand, we could not ask for anymore; on the other hand, if we’d reached this far, how could we stop before reaching our limit, before finding if we could get one real encore out of the beloved, prodigal musician? The crowd, as such, kept clapping.
And then I had occasion to amend my previous text message, the one stating that you should always take the house lights against the crowd. I wrote, “except this time.” Mangum had returned to play. Again.
Those familiar with Jeff Mangum – those who can identify him by name, without his band attached to it – probably already understand the hoopla, and understand how the announcement of his concert was what pushed me to fly over the Atlantic Ocean for the weekend rather than anything else. For those who don’t, a brief explanation:
Jeff Mangum is an American musician, probably close to the age of 40 if not there yet, who wrote and performed music in the 1990s. A member of the amorphous Elephant 6 collective – essentially a group of friends, many of them from Ruston, LA, who lived in Athens, GA and played music together in a variety of bands and songwriting vehicles, eventually garnering notoriety and popularity on a national scale, though I can’t really say how great that scale was at the time. The collective became known for making great music in a generally throwback manner, with nods to 60s pop, the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, that sort of thing. The three most well-known groups or artists from the Elephant 6 collective, I believe, were Olivia Tremor Control, The Apples in Stereo, and Neutral Milk Hotel. Each project had a Ruston native at its core – The Apples, still active, revolved around Robert Schneider in making their 60’s inspired power pop; Olivia Tremor Control, who have in the past couple years started playing shows again and even recorded a new song, had Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss at the center of their psychedelic pop masterpieces; and Neutral Milk Hotel was the name of Mangum’s longtime project.
If the Apples made the easiest to understand music of the original E6 group, and if Olivia Tremor Control tossed off two records consisting of brilliant pop but also long tracks of tape loops and “experiments,” (and if, for that matter, the younger affiliate Of Montreal actually found the most success in their second, post-2004 recording period), Neutral Milk Hotel are probably the most loved of the E6 bands. I have little grounds for affirming this beyond internet browsing and sharing a love of NMH with friends in college and through 30music, but it is the only band in the group to be enshrined into the 33 1/3 canon, which stands as at least one strong piece of evidence (Kim Cooper’s fabulously reported book serves as the major source for the info in this article, by the by).
In any case, the short story goes that Mangum made two full length albums. The first, On Avery Island, was essentially a solo record that Schneider produced and a bunch of other people played on as necessary. The second, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is the one everybody remembers, featuring a full four-piece band (Mangum on guitar and vocals, Scott Spillane on trumpet, Jeremy Barnes on drums, Julian Koster on just about everything else). After that album, released in February 1998, the band toured for much of the year, and then Mangum didn’t want to do it anymore. He stopped playing shows, broke up the band, disappeared from the indie scene, and didn’t do much publicly for about a decade. Then he started making random appearances at his friends’ shows (including the Olivia Tremor Control reunion shows), and then he played a random show in Brooklyn last winter, and finally this year it was announced he would play a few shows on the east coast and a festival in England. That catches you up as far as the quick and dirty goes.
As for my attendance, the story is as follows: upon learning about the shows, I first thought about going to the festival (I’m still considering it), but then realized that his dates in the Boston area coincided with the wedding I was invited to. And since it would have been impractical to go to Boston on a Saturday night when I was meant to be in Harwich, I fixed my eyes on making the show at Sanders Theater on a Friday night.
This was the first show I have ever gone to that involved buying tickets immediately, on the day of. Never have I had to deal with the frustrating process of queuing up online and calling repeatedly in hopes of getting through for one or two seats. I tried on a Thursday when pre-ticket sales were supposedly on sale, but they “sold out” in minutes. The next day, I geared up for the gates to open, clicked and clicked and called and called, varying between requesting one or two seats (in case I could find an interested +1), despairing that despite total preparation, I would be left in the cold. So long to the wedding as well, I thought, it wouldn’t be worth the $700 flight.
And then, at last, I got through. One seat, in the balcony, for September 9th, 2011, at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA. I had my ticket to see Jeff Mangum.
Whether instituted at Mangum’s suggestion, by Wordless Music, or by the Sanders Theater management, the controls on the tickets were stricter than for normal shows. Due to great concern about scalping, ticket holders, all of whom had to pick up at will call, were required not only to show ID but a print out of their ticket receipt or confirmation. I was not alone in not reading the fine print on the email detailing the process we ticket holders got the week before. I thought perhaps to tell the uptight dude running said process that we lived in 2011 and not 2004; he might have easily countered that most people have a smart phone in 2011, which could have shown the confirmation as well. Foiled in my mind, I found a Staples, printed out my ticket confirmation, and returned armed for music.
Sanders Theater, home to Memorial Hall, is a church-like building on the western edge of Harvard’s campus. Brick and stately, with busts of significant people on each side, and a tall-roofed hall that held 1,500 people, mostly in wooden benches, it’s a theater my grandmother comes often with her Russian-language community of elderly folks to see classical performances. The theater was the perfect setting for Mangum to play; it could have been the source of the images depicted on NMH posters like what they were selling at the show, with old-fashioned victrolas and society dames in the balcony and the general love of old and lost that in this scene, in the hall of Sanders Theater before Mangum’s 6th official show of his return, almost felt pornographically kitschy and attuned to the NMH aesthetic. What I mostly mean to say, though, is that Sanders Theater was a good place to see this performance.
I began milling around the building just after 7, waiting for doors to open at 7:30 – concert literature boasted of a prompt 8:00pm start. Also, seeing as I had pre-wedding buffoonery to join as soon as possible on the Cape, I thought I could help encourage an on-time start by setting the example and arriving in my seat early. Outside, a small crowd walked around the grassy plot in front of the building. A few stray fans walked around either asking if someone needed a ticket or, more commonly, if someone was selling a ticket. Hanging to our north was a soon to be full moon, not shining in the late daylight but nevertheless impressive, ominous. Amongst the crowd I saw a larger percentage of flannel shirts worn than I’ve seen since middle school, probably – whether the guys sporting the checkered look did it as a conscious homage to Mangum’s preferred form of outerwear or because that’s just how they roll, I quietly thanked the universe that my girlfriend’s taste do not include that style.
The doors opened at 7:30, I entered, found my seat, and began reading. Slowly, the hall filled with spectators, and by the time the show unpromptly began at 8:17pm, it was about two-thirds full, and a diverse mix – the tattooed, dads with their sons (I wonder who dragged whom to the show), college bros, and indie types like the couple next to me who spoke of not wanting to seem all “anti lo-fi” but really preferring the earlier Mountain Goats records. Of course, diverse in a relative sense; most of the crowd appeared to be middle-class white, with a few Asian, Latino, and other minorities breaking up the monochromaticity. The gender divide was fairly even however, which for a nominally “indie rock” show speaks of Neutral Milk Hotel’s broad appeal. In the background, the sound system piped in recordings of chanting that sounded African, Asian, or in between (i.e. Arabic).
The gentleman running Wordless Music, a man possibly so excited by the monumental nature of this show that he awkwardly quizzed people about whether they were coming or going in the ticket collection process, appeared to applause and introduced the show. He explained why photos and recording devices were barred; not just, as I guessed, because Mangum might have asked for this restriction but because, as I realized when he said it, it’s really annoying when everybody is recording the show and taking pictures with the phone and everything else. When we live through our handheld devices, we’re not living as much, and a live performance from Jeff Mangum was a place deserving of living as much as anything else.
Without further ado, a classical string quartet going by Acme came on. Four girls dressed casually in jeans and what not, they sat and played three pieces by Erik Satie that I noted only for the long bowstrokes that featured heavily, in the first two pieces especially. Meanwhile, the crowd seeped in during the 3rd piece and grew closer to capacity. The new arrivals, ignoring restrictions, used technology rampantly; at least, one guy in the row in front of me posted “Jeff Mangum” on his facebook status. Inescapable.
Similarly inescapable was the last song of Acme’s set, a 20-minute or so rendition of a Gavin Bryars piece called, “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” Over a tape loop of an English homeless man singing the titular refrain a few times, Acme gradually built up an elaborate backing, took over the lead melodic role, and then faded into support and then nothingness. Interesting conceptually, the piece wore out the patience of the crowd, at least based on my section and some comments I saw on a web board afterward.
The song and the set ended around 9:00pm. A few last stragglers joined the crowd, a few others stepped out for a cigarette, a breath of fresh air, or, paradoxically, both. I’d be lying if I said there was a great tension in the crowd, necessarily, but I certainly felt eager, and as the break extended to 15 minutes and then 20, that excitement surely built in other parts of the now-packed hall. At about 9:20pm, a fan in the balcony whistled loudly, exhortatively.
On cue, the house lights dimmed. Seconds later, Jeff Mangum, clad in trademark flannel, emerged from the back of the stage, sat down in a chair between four guitars and two microphones, picked up the guitar, and began to strum In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s epic centerpiece, “Oh Comely.”
As a person with spiritual aspirations but an overly rational mind, I allow myself very few speculations about life “finding” me in any ineffable way. One of those speculations regards music. I believe that in my life music has frequently entered at just the right moment, just the time when I was ready for it. I’m aware that as I tout my examples they could be easily ripped apart as spurious, but all the same, I have a feeling of serendipity regarding the music in my life.
The first example was finally getting into Saves the Day and the rest of the brand of emo my friends listened to in high school not long after my first and only high school break up. This example becomes all the more laughable when you consider I dated the girl for, really, three weeks, and that I had no real excuse for feeling so sad, just as most high school boys from upper-middle class backgrounds who listened to emo had no real excuse for feeling so sad, but there it was. Similarly, Nirvana, The Beatles, and Dylan hit me in college at all the right points, when I was finally ready for them. I remember listening to Blonde on Blonde for the first time on a Delta/Song Airlines flight home from Fort Lauderdale after wrecking my engine of the first car I ever owned by driving it for 5.5K miles and 8-9 months without ever getting the oil changed. Go ahead and tell me that wasn’t an appropriate time to hear about everybody getting stoned.
Few records found me at a more appropriate time than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I’m not sure how long I had heard about it before I received it, or when it first came on my radar; between hearing of Of Montreal in early 2004 as the first aural introduction to Elephant 6, listening to Pet Sounds in May of 2004 for the first time and knowing that Brian Wilson was a big influence on E6, and maybe falling in love with Saturday Looks Good to Me’s Every Night over the summer of 2004, a band All Music Guide shamelessly linked to NMH (shamelessly because there’s not much relation between the two, but AMG, personal friends of Fred Thomas, SLGTM’s front man, have supported him in every way possible, which is great by the way), as well as writing for 30music where a few people touted the album as indeed worth it, I became aware that I needed to try it out. Still, I was skeptical; besides not wanting to join the proverbial gang, I thought about the new comic someone had designed for 30music with a girl protesting that she was into NMH before everybody knew them, the joke being that everybody knew them already.
Without directly resisting or seeking out the album, I skated by until mid-September 2004. Home for my mother’s funeral, delayed by the unfortunate timing of Rosh Hashanah that year and the unavailability of a rabbi, I was on my AIM at the kitchen table in my dad’s house when one of the writers for 30music, a girl named Marisha, started talking to me. I’m sure I didn’t tell her about what was going on, being as I only knew her through online correspondence and not all that well but, perhaps because I had requested it from her earlier or, more likely, she told me she would send it to me at some earlier time, she sent me In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Again, those who have heard the album understand why it was appropriate at that time. Simple harmonically and melodically, but with a grab bag of weird and interesting sounds (accordions, singing saws, horns, fuzz on the guitars, and so on), the album had the immediate hooks to draw me in to its songs and its lyrics, which in their classic melodies and vivid themes spoke to the heart, to beauty and sadness and joy and pain and revelry and exhaustion. In large part inspired by reading Anne Frank’s diary, Mangum concocted a gritty and sparkling tribute to music and life, revolving around nine basic songs and two instrumental interludes. It was a song cycle, with two pairs of tracks explicitly tied together, a series of intersecting lyrical themes, and very basic chord changes. Weird and at the same time immediately accessible, direct and loud and soft and naked, always honest, the album creates its listening audience, such that almost anybody who is thoughtful and patient enough to put it on two or three times will fall in love with it.
Clearly, it didn’t take me long to join the NMH orthodoxy. Still a newcomer to the guitar, I learned almost all of the songs on the album. The first two tracks are in F; 3, 4, 6, and 8 are in G; 11 in G#; 9 in E; 5 and 10 instrumentals; and I never learned 7. Also, just about the only thing Mangum does with his chord structure out of the norm is to make the 3 or the 6 chord major instead of minor; he plays a B major instead of minor on track 4, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1”; a C major instead of minor on track 11, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”; and a E major instead of minor on “Oh Comely”. In the spring of 2005, I performed an open mic on my college campus where I played a song I wrote about my mom and covered “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1,” enjoying the rickety liberation that Mangum’s vocal encouraged me to sing with.
Mangum began this show, as mentioned, with “Oh Comely”, that E major to C major progression that, in its dissonance, sounds significantly sadder and more weighty than it would if he just stuck with the E minor (these chords, reversed, are how the Kinks get the shimmering effect on the initial strum of “Lola”). The crowd, unsure what Mangum’s tone would be on the night and afraid to spoil anything, stayed silent as he boomed through the 8-minute song, humming the horn parts that enter in the last section of the song, and then ending the song suddenly, without the ritardando of the album version. The crowd erupted, Mangum thanked them, and settled in for the night.
In terms of a concert, it was pretty straightforward. I’ll post the set list below, but it mostly conformed to expectations – every major In the Aeroplane… song was played, as were the best cuts off On Avery Island: “Song Against Sex” especially, but also “Naomi,” “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” and “Baby For Pree/Where You’ll Find Me Now.” Mangum played a Roky Erickson cover that he had played at previous shows on this tour, a simple lyric about love that fit in well.
Mangum also had an easy grip of the crowd. He changed a lyric in “Naomi” to refer to Cambridge and then, almost like a nervous newcomer on the scene, asked if the crowd heard the reference. He invited everybody to sing along to “In the Aeroplane over the Sea”, and then again on the last verse of “Ghost.” I never sing along at shows, a habit I must have gleaned from reading some clever bastard’s writing about why it’s lame to sing at shows instead of listening to the artist – I don’t claim originality – and while that’s a fair point for many shows, this one had the feeling of a reunion between Mangum and his fans, of a community; I joined in on “Ghost”, and later on “Holland, 1945,” and I felt the chill of union with others washing over me as I sang about the girl falling from 14 stories high.
The communal aspect played a huge role in this concert, which was as much a gathering as an artistic performance. The crowd reminded me of two other concerts I’ve been to: the first is a Jonathan Richman show I went to earlier this year, whose crowd was similar to this in their eagerness to lap up everything the performer said and then encourage him to come up with more. Some in the crowd shouted for “Little Birds”, a song mentioned in Cooper’s book as a dark, harrowing, disturbing song, the only post-In the Aeroplane… song Mangum has performed in public, and that only once 12-13 years ago. This knowledge of the artist corresponded with folks at the JR show who knew Richman’s trademark leg kick dance by heart and hoped to see it come out every other song.
The other show it reminded me of was a Cat Power show in Greensboro the summer of 2006, shortly after she had declared her sobriety, and just before she hit into the fullest boom of her career, it seems, in performing cover songs with sultry Southern swagger. There she stopped many of her songs in the middle out of frustration with the sound in the monitors, shared the news about her sobriety to great cheers, and finally ended the set only to light a cigarette and hold an impromptu Q&A. There as at the Mangum show, the crowd understood that they were dealing with a delicate artist, and so coaxed her along, supporting her at every stumble and wobble, hoping she could ride that bike on her own and amaze us with her talents therein.
This eager support did indeed coax some singular moments out of the shared Mangum/Sanders Theater crowd performance. During “Baby for Pree/Where You’ll Find Me Now,” the sound system cut off, and Mangum, losing the sound in the monitors, stood up and walked to the front of the stage without breaking his rhythm, sitting down and continuing to play, his booming voice still reaching us in the nosebleeds, everybody leaning on the edge of their seat to join in the intimacy. In an interlude between songs a few minutes later, somebody from the balcony shouted, “Now I can die happy!”, leading to a funny exchange where Mangum thanked the guy without knowing what he said, then finally nodded his understanding and said he could die happy too, to great cheers. Finally, before his last pre-encore song, as the shouts for “Little Birds” and “Communist Daughter” and others, he interrupted to ask, “Ok, do you guys want to sing Holland now?” For all the stories of damaged genius and reluctant performer, Mangum had a fair share of self-awareness and detachment about the show.
Anybody who’s made it this far is more than forgiven for wondering what the big deal is, then. If Mangum played songs not as a crazy savant but as a normal, centered man, if the crowd enjoyed it and supported it, isn’t that enough? Can’t we just go home happy? Can’t I just die happy without writing all of this?
There’s still something to explore. There’s the issue of the museum and the battle between narrative and beauty.
In another 33 1/3 book, one about the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society album, Andy Miller writes about the fifth track, “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains.” The whole song is a joke on the Kinks still playing R&B, and on a deeper level about, as Miller writes, “How do you reconcile your past and present?” The lyric talks about the last rebel, locked up in a museum, and Miller later compares that quixotic lyric to the Kinks’ fate, especially regarding this album, a failure at the time but enshrined in the museum of rock after the fact.
Attending any rock show, especially for non-social people like myself, is something of a strange phenomenon. Often, shows are just live performances of what you can hear on the album from the comfort of your home. It’s a vehicle for supporting the museum artifacts that are modern musicians, but unless the band itself is notorious for putting on a great or special show, there is often little extra benefit to the spectator beyond the social experience and that feeling of altruism.
Further, any reunion or comeback tour becomes immediately an exercise in nostalgia. Especially the first time around, no one wants to hear anything new. So an older band or artist is reviving material from 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago, playing it in a new context, but also owing great fidelity to the original. The spontaneity and improvisation that often serves as the key selling point of a live performance is not only unlikely but not desired in this case. Which leads us to narrative and beauty.
Before Jeff Mangum returned from his self-imposed hiatus to appear at shows again and then play them on his own, he existed as a narrative for his fans. We watch sports and consume art, I’d argue, for two main reasons: narrative and beauty (in sports there’s also identification, a cruder if more essential concept that, for this essay, I’m not interested in). Sports, for example, offers endless narrative, as various plot lines are shaped, erased, altered, changed, renewed, and grafted on to men hitting, throwing, or bouncing a ball at or past one another. These narratives are largely meaningless, and also rather arbitrary, but they are enjoyable, and life too is largely meaningless and arbitrary when we dare think about it.
On the beauty side of the occasion, sports suffer compared to art. In all my years of passionate and then casual fandom, I can think of only one athlete I witnessed in person who consistently performed beautifully: Pedro Martinez, pitcher for the Boston Red Sox during my high school and college years, time of my passionate fandom. Otherwise, due to us taking for granted the unbelievable athleticism of modern athletes, and the competition level that somehow renders most athletes on an equal plane with one another, I haven’t witnessed anybody else at that level.
Art, of course, provides a great deal of beauty, as well as a great deal of thought into how we live our lives and what it’s all about. On the macro scale, however, art rarely provides us with easy narrative. Everybody is accessible in our time, on facebook and twitter and all the rest of it, and it becomes hard to idolize or glorify artists, never mind construct back stories about them. I’ve been lucky enough, through my time with 30music, to meet a lot of my favorite musicians, and I understand that they’re just normal men and women who are good at music and who have gone on their own path, not heroes or idols or anything else. I could make a narrative up about them, but it wouldn’t be any more special than making up a narrative about you, or about the guy who records their sound, or who serves the drink, or anyone else.
That said, Mangum offered us one of the few time-tested narratives in art: that of the damaged artist who burned out rather than fade away. He became the Internet Age’s Salinger, its Cobain, its Greta Garbo, a feat all the harder because it’s the Internet Age, where no one can disappear and none are forgotten. A myth rose around him, a sense that in some way He was not like us, whether for ill or for good or, as it is with most chosen ones, for both.
Which of course is in some way ridiculous, as most narratives are when deconstructed. Mangum wrote a couple great records, went on tour, got tired, and stopped playing and talking to people in public. It wasn’t really that big of a deal. When pulling out that 33 1/3 book about In the Aeroplane…, I was surprised to see it was written in 2005. Of course, I must have read it as soon as it came out. In 2005, Mangum had been gone for seven years. Seven years, when observed from a few steps back, should hardly be long enough to build up a legend, no matter how good the album was. And yet, the rumor mill had long been churning, with brief reports flaring against the dark backdrop of mystery enveloping Mangum, a Pitchfork interview and the quest to find him from Creative Loafing most notable. Never mind that Mangum made it reasonably clear, as much as he could, that he just didn’t want to play music anymore, for reasons that included the grind of being a popular touring musician, sadness and depression over his friends’ continued suffering despite his own success, his desire to remain himself at a time when people overreacted to the depth of his music, and just because he didn’t want to play anymore. It sounds strange for him to stop doing what he loved to do, but it also makes sense for his mood to change, if we allow people freedom to decide the course of their own life. Mangum obviously either had that innate sense of freedom or acquired it through the success or struggle that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s reception brought him. He changed.
Then why come back? What changed between 2003, say, and now? Did he need the money (unlikely)? Did he just finally realize how much people out there cared about him as a musician and as a person? Did he just get over it? We as consumers of culture and as thinkers and as people also have the freedom to come up with our answer to that first question.
For example, I constructed a narrative that makes sense to me – Mangum hit on a raw nerve with In the Aeroplane…, both with listeners and himself. Cooper often posits that Mangum may have “channeled” his songs rather than write them, and while the idea comes off as overly hippie-dippy, there is something to it: many of Mangum’s melodies are simple and effective in a way that makes them appear timeless, more discovered than written – a more common example of the eternal melody that blends into what came before and yet stands out on its own is Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Neutral Milk Hotel songs have that feeling. “Two-headed Boy Pt. 2” would sound brilliant covered by a professional church-type choir, especially the last bridge, the “When we break, we all wait for our miracle,” section, where a perfect harmony/counter-melody offers itself a register above the main melody.
So there’s something fully-formed about the songs on this album, eternal. The lyrics trade in ugliness, death, rebirth, pain, joy, and similar weighty themes. For this reason, the album becomes a hit with everyone who really listens to it. Those listeners react to it in a deep way, and expect something out of Mangum. Mangum meanwhile has to perform these songs over and over, songs that came out of a personal lode of creativity but also emotion and energy; he tapped into a source inside himself that maybe was hidden, maybe was painful to reach, maybe opened up other difficult thoughts and flows. Performing these things might have challenged Mangum, might have physically or emotionally or spiritually have hurt him and drained him night after night. Add that to his new obligations to the press and his fans, and to his disappointment upon coming home and seeing others don’t have it the way he does, and we can imagine the beginnings of his funk.
From there, it’s not a huge step to the end of the funk. Love and support from those dear to him; understanding (which he flexed several times in this concert) that his songs are loved and he is loved as well by strangers out there; and time and distance that allows him to process the energy released in writing these songs, to detach himself from the creative process and to wholly embrace these songs as now formed entities, as something he can perform for others without giving a piece of himself from that dark place, and all of a sudden playing music for strangers doesn’t become as hard.
That’s my theory, at least. Like most plausible narratives about other human beings, especially strangers, people we can’t really imagine or know beyond superficial levels, it’s probably total bullshit. Just like Mangum’s level-headed control of the crowd ruined every narrative of damaged genius. That’s the thing about narratives about people: they’re highly contingent on facts we don’t know and feelings that often change, and memory besides.
Which leaves us with beauty. On a night where all we wanted was the museum versions of the song, where the early bootlegs from a Mangum comeback show suggested he was playing his songs straight up, with little nuance compared to the album versions except some added sweetness in his voice, where we all knew what we were getting, and where the chance of improvisation and narrative spectacle was minimal, all we were left with was beauty. Which may be the ultimate reason Mangum came back: to perform his songs that many of us find beautiful, to allow us to reconnect to songs we’ve heard so many times we know them front and back, to hear them for the first time live (I assume), to join a community for an hour and unite in something bigger than ourselves. In something beautiful.
“Except this time,” I texted to Ben, as Mangum reappeared and the crowd roared and the house lights came down again. I, out of my seat, settled into a spot in the aisles. Now I was closer to the stage, anyway. Mangum wanted added closeness too, apparently – after picking up the fourth guitar, the nicest looking one, a red and white one he hadn’t used yet, he walked out to the front of the stage again, away from the microphones, and began strumming vigorously. There were only two songs he really hadn’t played yet, “Communist Daughter” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1,” and the latter, one of the clear highlights of an album and career chock full of highlights, was the obvious choice, both from context and the vigorous strum.
So Mangum ended the night with his spookiest, most unfettered hit. His unamplified voice still rang out in rickety liberation, but there was the triumph of the return in the air, not a chauvinistic triumph but a communal one. In Cooper’s book, E6 member and contemporaneous Mangum girlfriend Laura Carter suggested, prophetically, that what Mangum wanted to do was, “be a recluse and then come out with an album in ten years and shock everybody.” While little can shock or surprise us in the Internet Age, and we’re still waiting on the album, a couple of years after the decade Carter suggested, Mangum has returned. Locked up in a museum, but returning to his songs and their beauty.
Jeff Mangum show setlist for Sanders Theater on 9th September, 2011:
1. Oh Comely
2. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
3. I Love the Living You (Roxy Erickson cover)
4. In The Aeroplane Over the Sea
5. Song Against Sex
6/7. A Baby for Pree/Where You’ll Find Me Now
10. Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
11/12. King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 1-3
13. Holland, 1945
15. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1
Source: My memory and this website.