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UCentral | March 17, 2013

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Where Some Holy Spectacle Lies: Jeff Mangum

Where Some Holy Spectacle Lies: Jeff Mangum
Josh Hutton

 

jeffmangum

Former frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum, plays at the Diamond Ballroom in Oklahoma City, Jan. 19. Photo by Anna Johnston.

Wild-eyed, backlight emphasizing every rouge strand of his unwashed hair, Jeff Mangum addressed the crowd amid his heavy-handed strums on “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. I”: “Can you guys please not record me?”

Those that continued to do so were promptly removed by security. A shame. That was only the second song. Worship at the Church of Mangum was just getting started.

Background

Jeff Mangum fronted Neutral Milk Hotel, an iconic folk band and part of the Elephant Six Recording Company, before they dissolved ties in 1998.

Their second and final album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, tops critics’ best-of-the-90s lists and continues to act as a framework for musical acts such as The Decemberists and Arcade Fire.

Mangum underwent a nervous breakdown on the coattails of In the Aeroplane’s release and subsequent success. The musician became a recluse.

Mangum announced a 2013 U.S. tour in November, his first since 1998.

Over Neutral Milk Hotel’s 15-year hiatus, Mangum has only played a handful of acoustic sets including a benefit for friend and musician Chris Knox and an appearance at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street.

Taking the stage

Originally billed to play ACM@UCO’s Performance Lab, the January 19th Mangum concert relocated to Oklahoma City’s Diamond Ballroom to accompany the crowd of a few hundred people.

Minutes before the concert began, while the crowd compressed like an accordion against the small stage, I pulled my roommate Brooks aside and asked, “Do you feel like you’re about to see Jesus?”

“Better. I’m about to see god,” a woman behind us stomped an empty beer can. “After this, I’ll know what’s real.”

When the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman stepped into the light, the crowd raised hands. The crowd screamed. Out of a self-induced exile, here was a folk myth with long, dirty hair tucked under a grey cap and a gnarly, mountain man beard sprawling to his chest.

With only four guitars for company, Mangum took a seat center stage. He wasted no time on introductions. He grabbed a guitar. “Two-headed boy all floating in bliss,” he belted as the hip-fire “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1” took off. Not one word in his rambling, verbose tunes went without crowd accompaniment.

Fans did their best to hit those imaginary notes that only Mangum’s voice seems capable of traversing. Melodies gruff and sorrowful flat lined one moment and the next spawned images of wonder and childhood (“She was born in a bottle rocket, 1929 / With wings that ring around a socket / Right between her spine”).

The transcendental hustle of “Holland, 1945,” the apocalyptic “Song Against Sex,” and the devastating “Oh Comely” melded – leaving listeners both enthralled and emotionally drained.

“In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”

Between songs, Mangum appeared humbled by the crowd’s reaction. A spark of childhood left in his hesitant grin.

“I haven’t left the house much lately,” Mangum said toward the end of the show. “So, I’ll just sing, if that’s okay with you.”

Then the artist went into his opus, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” The crowd – a sea of beards, skinny jeans, and flannel – lifted up their voices, transforming an indie gem into a gospel behemoth.

I looked around, mystified. To one side, a barista, I recognized from a downtown coffee shop, wept. Rivers streaked from his eyes and broke into tributaries when they collided with his ironic mustache.

On the other side of me a woman in her forties cried into her husband’s chest. And when Mangum reached the part of the tune where the horns take over on the record, many fans covered the trumpet’s melody with their best brass impressions.

After shouts of elation and mad applause at the song’s conclusion, a man behind me leaned over to his friend and said, “I’ve been high a thousand times. Drunk a million. But I’ve never felt anything like this.”

I had to agree.

Those secret, sacred junctures of time and music

I thought seeing Mangum would de-mystify the man and the music he made with Neutral Milk Hotel. Not even close. When he walked off after the encore, he had the repose of a cowboy in an old western riding off into the sunset – unreachable and noble.

Mangum garnered such an emotional response at the Diamond that Saturday night because his songs of psychedelic abstractions, Anne Frank weirdness, and teeter-tottering domestic life attach themselves to life’s delicate moments. His music doesn’t remind you of a girlfriend, it doesn’t remind you of high school; it doesn’t remind you of celebrations.

His music is the mole on your girlfriend’s hipbone. His music is the abuse your secondhand car took in high school. His music is the lullaby you sing to comfort an overindulgent friend. And after 15 years of memorizing, 15 years of attaching those songs to moments, Oklahomans shared those secret, sacred junctures of time and music as a choir.

Using “Two-Headed Boy Pt. II” to bookend the setlist, two lines came out sharper, clearer than all the rest. As if Mangum was insisting above all else, remember this: “And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle / God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.”