Last night I saw Jeff Mangum live in Philly. This is one of those things that seemed like it could never happen. Neutral Milk Hotel had called it quits back in 1999, years before I’d even heard of them, and despite the odd appearance here and there, I didn’t really believe that Jeff would ever go on tour, that he’d come to a place where I was, and that I’d get tickets. It seemed to me akin to going to a Beatles concert — something that some other people had been able to do, but an opportunity that the rigid realities of time and space would not allow me. I remember the regret I felt when I learned that Jeff had made a surprise appearance at The Brillobox in Pittsburgh, the last city I lived in, but after I’d moved away to live here. If only I had made the 5 hour drive, I thought, I could’ve been there in the room when he came out and played two songs. But then I saw a video of the performance on youtube, and I could barely hear Jeff over the noisy crowd. I could hear some of the audience members trying to shush the others to no avail, and I decided I was glad that I hadn’t been there, because I would’ve been disappointed and angry. I started to think that maybe it was for the best that I’d never see him live; that after all the years and all the poring over recordings there was no way the man could live up to the legend, that the very reality of it — the venue, the sound, the other people — would inevitably disappoint or sully my mental shrine to the music I love so much.
But when the Philly date was announced and it was the week of my 27th birthday I knew I couldn’t pass it up. So I camped out on my computer the morning the tickets were going onsale, refreshing every few seconds as the appointed hour drew close, and snagged a pair in the 34 seconds before they sold out. It was a seated show at the Irvine Auditorium on UPenn’s campus. A big, stately sort of room where you might go to witness something high-brow. My seat was in the orchestra, about 20 rows back from the stage.
I should say, perhaps, that I’m not one to attend a lot of shows generally. Maybe it’s largely to do with some idea of getting my money’s worth, and I’d feel differently if I had a lot of disposable income, but that’s a situation I haven’t found myself in for several years, if ever. But I’m also turned off by the feeling I sometimes come away with that for the indie crowd, going to see a national touring band can be mostly about being able to say you were there — you buy a tshirt, you take a shitty picture on your phone which you can post on the internet, you accrue some kind of cred and get to think of yourself as hip and in-the-know, you make your friends jealous when they don’t get tickets before it sells out or when the band comes to town next time at a much bigger venue. Well, fuck all that. I’ve often attended shows and felt afterwards that I would’ve enjoyed myself more (and spent a lot less money) had I stayed home with a 6-pack of good beer and listened to the record. I recognize the irony of saying this as a performing musician, but sometimes I just don’t know what I’m supposed to get out of going to a show.
So with all that preamble in mind, on to the performance. Jeff sat onstage, long-haired, flannelled, his eyes shadowed by a cap. He had four acoustic guitars around him and two microphones in front. It somehow seemed right that he would mic his guitars rather than plugging them in. There could hardly have been much suspense as to the makeup of the setlist, as Neutral Milk Hotel only released two albums of 10 songs each. The one semi-surprising moment came when Jeff performed Little Birds, which is to my knowledge the only post-In the Aeroplane song to ever have been performed. I only know of one bootleg recording of the song, which I hadn’t listened to in awhile. The song sounded polished and complete, having developed far beyond the skeletal work-in-progress version of the bootleg recording. It was intense and beautiful, on par with the darker, death-focused material of On Avery Island and Aeroplane. It did come as a slight shock, though, that he opened with Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2, the denouement from Aeroplane. I’m so used to the experience aptly described in Kim Cooper’s Aeroplane book — sitting in some driveway, having arrived at my destination, but unable to turn off the engine and get out until the end of the song and the album, when Jeff can be heard putting down his guitar — that it was jarring to hear straight off the bat. It feels like the sort of song you have to work up to. But in Jeff’s hands (and throat), the emotional tenor of the song was instantly realized despite the lack of build-up, and we were off to the races.
So: the voice. It’s a voice that I know quite well; I’ve probably spent more time listening to Jeff Mangum’s recorded voice than I have any other artist with a comparable output, so I think it’s fair to say I was attuned to the nuances. It was both everything it used to be and at the same time not, which I suppose would be true of any person when compared to a decade-plus younger version of themselves. He readily summoned the same emphatic, howling quality that made his voice so captivating on NMH’s recordings, and he deftly navigated all of the twisting, bouncing melodies. There was no mistaking that this was the same person who had made those records, and for as many Neutral Milk Hotel covers as I’ve heard, some of them quite lovely, I’ve yet to hear another person approach the quality that Jeff’s voice gives to the songs. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the individual components of the songs — the chords and melodies are all comprehensible and standard enough, and seem like they’d be within the reach of many musicians. But for some ineffable reason, these songs only come to life through his voice, and any other singer can seemingly only hope to be an echo, a shadow, a reflection. But there was a slight huskiness in his singing that hadn’t been there before, as though the same phrases required the consumption of a little more air, because some small amount of it was leaking. One of the reason’s Jeff’s vocal performances were so singular was his remarkable lung capacity and long phrases — many a singer-along has run out of breath several times over while Jeff continued unabated. There was still evidence of this quality in last night’s performance, but it had diminished a bit. His phrases were a little shorter, his breaths a little more frequent and more deliberate, and thus his vocal presence a little more human and less otherworldly than in his younger days.
The highest notes in particular were clearly a struggle; his voice gave out entirely at the melodic peak of Oh Comely, prompting a little mid-song self-deprecation at the first occurrence, although it was better the second time around. Of course this could’ve been just a bit of an off night for him, vocally — he wasn’t a perfectly consistent vocalist back in the 90s, either. But he hewed fairly closely to the recorded melodies of most of the songs, rather than twisting and extending them into the stratosphere as he sometimes used to. This was most noticeable to me in his performance of Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone, which felt positively sedate compared to this 1997 performance. Those amazing sustained high notes were nowhere to be found during last night’s set. If you’ve never seen the performance in the previous link, I’d strongly recommend watching all the videos. They’re truly captivating, and show that Jeff was a talented performer beyond even what we heard on the Neutral Milk Hotel records.
But considering those old videos leads me to what I struggled with the most in trying to determine how I felt about last night’s performance as a whole. Although some of the most powerful tracks on Neutral Milk Hotel’s records, like Oh Comely or Two-Headed Boy, consisted of nothing more than Jeff’s voice and acoustic guitar, there were many more elements on other tracks that were essential to the Neutral Milk Hotel sound: the fuzzy distortion, the frenetic drumming, the raw, folky brass lines, the humming accordion. Jeff’s voice can take on a very instrumental quality, and last night, as in past solo performances, he often used his voice to fill in for the missing trumpets and his frenzied strumming to make up for the lack of drums. But last night, while he still sounded strong and capable, he didn’t hit his guitar with quite the same bloody-fingered intensity or wail with the same wild-eyed determination as he used to. Perhaps it was because he knows he has nothing to prove, that the rapt audience will fill in the gaps wherever he lays back or falters. The result was that where he once didn’t seem to lack for a backing band, conjuring up the power of a five-piece rock and roll outfit with only his voice and acoustic, last night I found myself wishing that I could be seeing a Neutral Milk Hotel show instead of a Jeff Mangum show. I started to wonder, as I sang along with the missing accompaniment, how much of the performance was being supplied by the man onstage and how much of it was being filled by the audience in from all of the memories and connections we brought with us. Was there really magic in the air, or did we simply will that magic into existence with the collective force of our expectations and devotion? And does it matter? I’m not sure. But I found myself thinking in spite of myself about whether it was worth it to pay $35 to sit 50 feet away from what could feel, to a more cynical person, like a Neutral Milk Hotel open mic night. But what was I expecting? What could I have possibly heard in those songs that I hadn’t heard before? Why was it so special and important to be there in the room with him while he played? Again I don’t know the answers. But I thought about the videos I’d recently seen of this past summer’s Neutral Milk Hotel tribute show at Johnny Brenda’s, which I had decided to skip at the time, suspecting that it would prove an affront to the holy NMH legacy. I wondered if that show, featuring a sweaty, packed JB’s and a huge cast of bright-eyed and enthusiastic folks onstage, didn’t seem like more fun, and maybe even a little closer to the original spirit of Neutral Milk Hotel than what I saw last night. Blasphemy, I know.
It was without a doubt a good performance, and the songs are as effective and affecting as they ever were. But my emotional reaction to it was mixed. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon. It’s certainly difficult in some ways for me to bring myself nitpick the performance like this, perhaps because because to acknowledge any imperfections in it is to confront the fundamental tragedy of human existence, the one that many of Jeff’s songs approach in various ways – we will all grow old, our powers will weaken, and we will die. You, me, Anne Frank, Jeff Mangum. I will turn 27 this weekend – the same age, as many music trivia buffs will remind you, as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and now Amy Winehouse were when they died — and I’m seeing a handful of grey hairs every time I look in the mirror. Perhaps I haven’t yet hit the peak of my physical, mental, and artistic capabilities. Perhaps I’ve already past it. But there is no doubt that I am getting older every day and that one day I will die. But that is, of course, the beauty of those great human inventions: the written word, the photograph, the recorded sound. Long after Anne Frank was gone, we still had her diary, and it still had the power to inspire Jeff to create Aeroplane. And long after Jeff is gone, we will still have Aeroplane, and it will still be perfect and beautiful. And it’s my greatest aspiration that when my day comes I will have left behind something equally perfect, in its own way.