I never expected to see Jeff Mangum live. After Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded in 1998, Mangum rarely stepped into the public eye, preferring to release recorded music and shunning live performances. I discovered his music almost ten years after Neutral Milk Hotel split, so a live show was on my “Dream Gig” list alongside, say, Nirvana and The Smiths.
So imagine my surprise when I found out, three weeks after tickets went on sale, that Mangum would be playing a small acoustic set in Whelan’s. Naturally, it was sold out.
Imagine my surprise AGAIN when on the night of my 20th birthday party, checking Facebook at four in the morning (yes, very sad), I saw a message from a friend saying that due to demand the gig had been moved to Vicar Street and extra tickets would be on sale the next morning. Despite being in 20th-birthday-mode (a nice term for “drunk”) I set my alarm for 9am and dutifully arose at that time to purchase tickets. It was clearly meant to be.
Approximately six months later on March 7th, despite gig postponements and college assignments getting in the way, I was standing in Vicar Street waiting for Jeff Mangum to appear.
He stepped out on stage looking typically scruffy and unkempt with long hair and a baker-boy cap. Only the most devoted fan would recognise him walking down the street. But when he sat down and started to play, his voice was unmistakable – strangely beautiful, keening, neater and purer than on recordings, but still instantly recognisable.
Mangum said little throughout the show, occasionally throwing out the odd quip in response to shouts from the audience. From time to time while singing, he uttered a little “c’mon”, urging the reverent crowd to sing along. The stage was sparsely set, with just a stool and a microphone in a stand. There was no backdrop, no fancy light show. In many ways, this is exactly how I wanted Mangum and the gig to be.
The set was definitely a crowd pleaser, consisting mostly of songs from Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea with three tracks from the band’s debut album On Avery Island. It is difficult to choose highlights from what was essentially a gig of all my favourite songs, but if I had to…
Standouts would be the sprawling “Oh Comely”, with Mangum and the crowd singing the parts of the missing brass section, and “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2+3”. Hearing hundreds of people singing “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST” at the tops of their lungs will never not be a surreal experience. Non-album tracks “Engine” and “Little Birds” were also very special.
Eck, what am I saying? The whole gig was special. Heard live, these songs that I have listened to over and over again were given a new lease of life. I was reminded why I loved them so much, which is precisely what live music should do. Life-changing.