Jeff Mangum returns to stage in Providence
Solo set features favorites from Neutral Milk Hotel
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2013 02:02
Jeff Mangum played a solo set on Monday at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, R.I. For the uninitiated, Jeff Mangum was the singer and principal songwriter behind indie darlings Neutral Milk Hotel. This oddball group, featuring bizarre lyrics and an arrangement of unusual sounds, put out a handful of recordings in the ’90s, including the widely acclaimed “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (1998). Aside from a smattering of live sets and guest musical contributions, Mangum and his band then vanished from the public for over a decade. Mangum broke the silence last year with a spot at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and an accompanying tour — he is now partway through a second tour.
The evening began with a short set by the guitarist−singers of Tall Firs, who established a decidedly alternative tone for the night, sounding like a mix between some of J Mascis and Thurston Moore’s softer pieces — perhaps not too surprising considering the band is on Moore’s record label, Ecstatic Peace!. The duo featured sparse guitar picking, leaving plenty of space for its sound to echo and breathe, with just a dash of classic blues and country sensibility. The pair was friendly and talkative towards what seemed like an uninterested, but polite, audience, jokingly attributing the atmospher to their somewhat “mopey” sound.
Leaving melancholy behind, the second opener, the Music Tapes, were led by former Neutral Milk Hotel banjo−and−saw player Julian Koster. Tall Firs served as merely an appetizer for a night of off−the−beaten−path music. Koster immediately shook things up with an energetic singing−saw duet with a “mechanized organ−playing tower,” which was cranked like a street organ grinder. Earnestly smiling with a lopsided, single−earflapped blue hat, he greeted the audience: “When you were little, you ran away and went to see the Music Tapes.” With a band playing such dissimilar instruments as a French horn, tubular bells and a banjo — not to mention the fact that they were on a stage with such comically absurd props as a seven−foot−tall metronome and a singing retro television — it was easy to understand what Koster meant. Sounding like a more childish, cheerful version of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Music Tapes served as a great warm−up for what was to follow.
Of course, this flannel−toting, beanie−capped, bearded crowd wasn’t here for either of those two groups. Like some celestial being, Mangum arrived on stage via descending staircase. Not a grand one, like those often used in old popular−music performances, but a rugged metal one meant for the stage crew. It didn’t matter to the audience, who went absolutely wild at every downward step. Mangum, sporting long hair and a thick beard, certainly looked the part of the indie deity, offset not one bit by the Cosby−esque sweater he was wearing. After sitting down and picking up his acoustic guitar, he launched into the simple opening chords of “Holland, 1945” and this crowd of hip 20−somethings transformed into adoring fans who knew every line, every verse. Even though the studio song is notable for its fuzzed−out wall of sound, it lost no power as an acoustic performance.
Mangum continued this trend of re−purposing the Neutral Milk Hotel library for his sing−a long show, playing beloved songs from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” including both “Two−Headed Boy” songs and all three “King of Carrot Flowers” songs, as well as ones from their debut album, “On Avery Island” (1996), including “Song Against Sex” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone.” He also pulled out even more obscure songs like “Ferris Wheel on Fire.” Mangum exhibited phenomenal control of his uniquely nasally vocals — his impressive ease of shifting volume and tone on the nearly 10−minute−long “Oh Comely” repeatedly earned cheers from the audience. His foot−stomping, hand−clapping rendition of “Ghost” was also particularly enthusiastic.
After finishing a 12−song setlist, Mangum came back on stage with old bandmate Koster, and together they played an encore set of “Engine” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” At the concert’s end, Mangum thanked the audience with his typical modesty: “Do you guys sing this loud when you listen to the record at home?” Then he once again took to the stairway.
In all, Jeff Mangum showed that, despite his long hiatus, he still has the chops to play a set of songs that many hold quite dear. Perhaps his recent developments will be a sign of more Neutral Milk Hotel activity yet to come.