It’s hard to say.
I mean, it’s difficult to witness any musical performance without context, but it’s impossible with someone like Mangum.
1. His last record with his band Neutral Milk Hotel, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”, was released thirteen years ago. It’s fraught with gorgeous but disturbing imagery, and has become a cult-classic.
2. He hasn’t performed live (save for a few guest appearances), given an interview, or done anything in public for ten years. He effectively disappeared.
3. His fans, for the most part, view him as a sort of reclusive genius … the announcement of this tour was somewhat akin to JD Salinger suddenly announcing a book tour.
4. The two sold-out Toronto dates, this past Friday & Saturday nights, took place at Trinity St. Paul’s, an old, gorgeous church in the heart of Toronto’s hipster district.
That a LOT of context.
Mangum took the stage to wild applause which suddenly died down as soon as he began strumming the opening chords to Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘Oh, Comely.’ The rest of the set followed suit; opening chords of a NMH classic, rapturous applause, dead silence, save for the man and his voice. It took three requests from Mangum (and an explanation that he wrote his songs so people would sing along with them) before the choir of fans began to chime in.
The performance itself was excellent, but you could cut the ‘context’ in the room with a knife. The audience could feel it, and you got the impression that Mangum could feel them feeling it. Perhaps as an ice-breaker, he asked, “Are there any questions?”
So, compiling the questions and comments yelled from fans with Mangum’s answers, here’s a mini-interview with Jeff Mangum:
(Update: Originally, I transcribed this from memory, but Mitch at southernsouls.ca posted the banter taken directly from the recording, so … I’m stealing his transcription.)
Fan: We love you.
Fan: We missed you.
JM: … But we’re together now. (Chuckles) I mean, thanks!
JM: Anybody have any questions? Not that I have any answers, but . . .
Fan: Will there be a new album?
JM: I don’t have any fucking idea. I didn’t think I’d be doing this.
Fan: We’re glad you are.
JM: I’m glad I am too. I think it’s good for me, I dunno . . .
Fan: Have you been writing new songs?
JM: I go through periods of writing. I mean, if something came out of my heart naturally I’d put it out, but I’m not gonna make another record because of . . . whatever . . . all the other bullshit.
JM: But thanks for asking. Perfectly natural question to ask.
Fan: Will you play the organ later?
JM: I can’t play the organ. That’s the beauty of 4-track recording and overdubbing. I fooled you into actually thinking I could play the organ.
Fan: When are you playing Chicago?
JM: Oh yeah, I’m coming there. It’ll be a little while . . . I’m being slow so I don’t burn myself out, but next spring or something? You came from Chicago? . . . Shit.
JM: There’s some bullshit idea that like we’re not gonna sing along to my songs, then why the fuck did I write them then, you know? You gonna sing?
The respectful banter of the audience with a musician most of them never thought they’d get a chance to see only added to one of the most unique and memorable concerts I can remember.
So, the question remains … Jeff Mangum: I don’t know who he is, and he’s performing at an open mic night. I walk in.
Tearing away much of the mystique, atmosphere and background story as possible, I’d have to say … absolutely, I’d be impressed. It was an amazing performance, made only more amazing by the atmosphere and, yes, the context.
As my friends and I exited the ridiculously sweaty, humid church, I posed the same question to them.
“Definitely,” one responded. “There’s just something about his voice … And he has charisma.”
Someone from southernsouls.ca was cool enough to share a few tracks recorded from the show: Check them out here!