I can be long-winded, but I don’t want to do that here. I believe that the beauty in what I witnessed seeing Jeff Mangum was the simplicity, the unity, the love. I don’t want to dampen that. This is not a review. This is different. Think of it as a diary entry. Think of it as me trying to recount a profound and beautiful experience completely and as concisely as possible.
I wrote about Mangum in depth last month, so I’m not going to recount any information about him or Neutral Milk Hotel. I’m just diving into the concert I attended on January 25. First there was the anticipation. For months, I looked forward to this concert. I was one of the lucky 1,200 people to get tickets, and I was so grateful for that. This wasn’t like most shows I go to. Getting tickets was a mission, it was a requirement, it might have been my only chance to see Jeff Mangum live. I never worried that my expectations would exceed Mangum’s delivery. I never worried about being let down or disappointed. The opportunity to see him at all was wonderful; a year ago, I would have never thought I’d get the chance to.
As I walked into Irvine Auditorium, to my seat in the second row, I was struck by how perfect the place was to see Mangum. The architecture, the organs, the colors, everything. It fit the Neutral Milk Hotel aesthetic in a way that no other venue I know could have. My attention was immediately drawn to the stage, where a huge array of instruments and other gadgets were set up for the opening band, the Music Tapes. Featuring former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster, the Music Tapes are beyond the realm of rational classification and description. Among the instruments on stage: a banjo, a bass guitar, a tuba, a trumpet, a trombone, a saw, various bells and cymbals. In addition to the somewhat traditional instruments there was a 7 foot tall metronome, a automatic mechanical organ machine, and a television set that was later introduced as “Static,” the founding member of the Music Tapes. The Music Tapes were strange, they were unique, they were charming. I said to a friend that the only way I could think to describe Julian Koster, adorned in a bizarre mismatched clothes, was as a magical being, an elf perhaps, that hopped out of a Disney movie to tell us stories full of magic and wonder. The Music Tapes took the fuzz-folk feel of Neutral Milk Hotel and turned it up a few notches, creating something I think is easiest to describe in the way it made me feel: happy, enchanted, childlike, innocent. Part music, part three-man show, it was genuinely entertaining.
Them there was the wait for Mangum, the announcement that photography was forbidden, a rule that seemed to be strictly followed, his entrance, and the silence and respect and awe of the crowd. He opened with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” and I knew it was going to be an unforgettable night. Immediately enchanted by Mangum as he sang alone on stage, I wasn’t at all surprise to feel my throat choking up and the presence of tears in my eyes. There’s no way to describe the experience without sounding cliché or over-the-top, but it honestly was magical. Next came “Holland, 1945,” and at some point around this time Mangum mentioned how happy he was to see his fans, to see how people were affected by the “messages in bottles” he wrote and recorded so many years ago. He encouraged people to move closer, and a group of fans quickly moved to sit on the floor in front of the stage. It was as if we needed his permission to do anything. We all just watched with wonder in our eyes, some of us in tears, others watching with unblinking reverence and love. He strongly encouraged us to sing along–yes, us, at this point, everyone in that place was part of something. I felt connect to everyone else in that auditorium. Everyone shouted, “I love you, Jesus Christ,” during “King of Carrot Flowers Pts Two & Three” regardless of their beliefs. We all meant it. Even as I’m typing this, I still have that overwhelming feeling of unity and emotional catharsis sweeps over me. When I think about that evening, I start to get a little choked up in spite of myself…I can’t help it. It was special. Of all the concerts I’ve ever been to, this one was the most moving. It was a deeply spiritual experience. I believe in something I didn’t before that day, be it the power of music, or God, or some kind of spiritual unity of souls, or some “endless endless” spoken of in the liner notes of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s the feeling that matters, the pride, the emotion, the love, not the order of songs or every word exchanged between Mangum and fans (he encouraged fans to talk and did answer back).
Mangum played a lot of songs from Aeroplane, a few from On Avery Island, and two that didn’t appear on albums: “Engine,” in which Mangum was joined by Julian Koster on saw, and the last song Mangum wrote and played publicly after Aeroplane, the dark and ominous, “Little Birds.” He remarked that we took his breath away during “Engine,” and thanked us for being there. By the end of the show, Jeff Mangum invited everyone to stand, a mass of people get up and move towards the front, myself included. Standing close to the stage, mere yards away from Jeff, I screamed “Two-Headed Boy” at the top of my lungs along with everyone else. My voice cracking with emotion and strain in a way I can’t remember experiencing in a long time, I felt like I knew that Two-Headed Boy, I could feel for him. At the end of the song, Mangum stopped and pointed out into the crowd. The Music Tapes began marching toward the stage playing the instrumental from Aeroplane “The Fool.” Jeff joined them on guitar as they marched toward the stage, stopping in the middle of the crowd to play the rest of the song. Koster climbed up on stage and left with Mangum. The crowd roared with applause and cries for an encore. Mangum reemerged to play his encore, “Song Against Sex,” followed by “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” where Koster again joined him on the saw. That song, so delicate, so beautiful, so melancholy, yet so hopeful was the perfect ending to a truly amazing evening.
Something happened in that room that evening to me and to others. Something beautiful and one of a kind. Calling it a religious experience feels too narrow. Neutral Milk Hotel resides outside of the constraints of religion, outside of all the boundaries in our society and our minds. The stories Mangum sings to us, the characters he presents, surreal and fanciful as they are, stir up something deep within us. Something beyond words.