I don't know how many of you were at the Jeff Mangum show last January. For those of you who were not, though I assume the Venn diagram of the two crowds shares a considerable crossover, the crowd at the solo show could sense a frailty in Mangum that made them reverent and silent and respectful in a way I had absolutely never experienced before in Dallas. Every note hung clear in the air, no-one whooped, nothing was shouted apart from messages of love and support. The crowd even did the trumpet parts.
Jeff Mangum is clearly a lot more used to gigging now. A year on, with his band of 1990s lo-fi heroes reformed, he's even playing shows standing up, and while he might not be smiling quite yet, he at least seems to be enjoying himself. The normalcy of this show, as normal as a show by a band who haven't toured in over a decade can be, combined with the larger draw that is the full band operating under "Neutral Milk Hotel" rather than a Jeff Mangum solo show, brought in the usual Dallas crowd. By that, I mean a crowd with enough people determined to spoil it for everyone else.
Mangum spent the first song, a tender solo rendition of "Two-Headed Boy," glowering at a man about ten feet from him who, despite the posters everywhere saying no photos, and the announcement before the band took the stage that there should be absolutely no photography, decided the best way to respond to these warnings was to spend the song taking photos on his iPhone, with the flash on. Said man had spent the pre-show boasting to his friends about how he was just expensing all of these tickets. Security eventually dealt with him.
This is, of course, to say nothing of the man who thought it would be best to shout "PANTERAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" between not one but two songs, because perhaps when the crowd didn't laugh the first time they just didn't hear him.
Perhaps I shouldn't be so hung up on a crowd. It's just deflating, that's all. Mangum wasn't hung up. When eventually someone decided enough was enough, they shouted "DALLAS IS SORRY!" which was met by a thunderous round of applause. Mangum, who was on stage by himself at this point, paused and looked quizzical. He stepped up to the mic. "What are you sorry for?"
"THAT GUY," came the response of dozens. "There's nothing to be sorry for. We're having fun."
A scarcely believable solo rendition of "Oh Comely" followed, to be joined at the end of the song by the band returning to their vast array of eccentric instruments. As well as the usual band set-up of guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, I observed a hand-bell, three saws, electric bagpipes, the rarely-seen electric saxophone, and a wide array of brass instruments.
The gig was, all annoyances aside, a joyful romp through some much-loved classics, all the renditions remaining almost entirely faithful to the originals, every complex and unknowable sound suddenly a real thing being produced by someone somehow, and some crackling energy was given to songs like "Holland, 1945" and "Song Against Sex."
The concert reached its spiritual highs, though, when it was just Mangum on stage, that infinite and unique voice not buried underneath three layers of brass, braying unknowable lyrics from somewhere underneath beard, hair and hat. While it was a delight to hear so many favorites faithfully rendered (and let's face it, there are some songs that Mangum just couldn't play solo, "Fool" and Aeroplane Over The Sea's untitled track being the two most obvious), there are no songs that I wouldn't rather have heard relayed to us by Mangum alone, with a quiet, respectful audience, a stool to sit on, and a stage to swallow him.
Maybe I'm missing the point, but Mangum is so special he doesn't need any sort of accompaniment.
In just an hour or so, to a lullaby of "Engine," Neutral Milk Hotel had departed the stage to the rapturous applause of a standing ovation. They are a special band, but Jeff Mangum is the most special of all. I'm not sure if they'll be back, but I hope in some way or another to see Jeff again.
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