Jeff Mangum/ ; February 7, 2012; The Athenaeum Theater, Chicago
I was quite late to the Neutral Milk Hotel party. I remember In the Aeroplane Over the Sea being released, and seeing a poster of the album’s iconic cover in the window of a Chicago record store advertising an upcoming show. I didn’t buy the record and I didn’t go to the show. I didn’t regret it, heck I didn’t even think about it again until years later when I finally got a copy of Aeroplane. Then I regretted it. It’s not for everyone that’s for sure, but it was quite definitely for me. Mangum’s voice is not always easy to listen to, it could almost be described as a powerful whine, but I find it intoxicating. There’s an undeniable energy behind it, a force of nature. And it’s one I never thought I would see live since Mangum became famously reclusive after that record.
He didn’t seem at all the hermit at the Athenaeum tonight. He was relaxed, conversational and still more than a little surprised at the status his music has achieved. From the middle of a circle of acoustic guitars, he frequently encouraged the sold out crowd in the big, old theater to sing along, and many did. Luckily most seemed as hesitant as I was so it was never loud enough to be annoying. The few people I told about the show that I thought might actually know who he was, responded with “oh, well, I only know that one record.” My first thought was “isn’t that enough?!” My second, “what else is there?” Mangum answered both of those questions. Yes, just knowing that record was certainly enough. The bulk of his too short (just over an hour) set was drawn from Aeroplane, and it was positively breathtaking. Hearing these songs live was an experience I never thought I would have. I had heard that Neutral Milk Hotel’s other studio record On Avery Island was spotty at best, but the songs he played from it tonight made me want to buy it on the way home.
His voice hasn’t lost a thing over the years, it was strong and oh so recognizable, and it sounded exactly like him. The Athenaeum doesn’t host many, perhaps any, shows, but its less than perfect sound was perfect for this lo-fi artist. While he played most of the set solo, occasionally other musicians would wander onstage for a key part, a warbling flugelhorn, an unhurried drum beat, or a soulful cello. It was perfect. Most of these guests were part of the opening act, a trio made up of members of Elf Power, Gerbils and NMH. I missed their first couple songs getting a beer and a T-shirt and stopping to chat with several people I knew. When I returned my friend told me I hadn’t missed much. However, I quickly fell for their off-kilter, low-key charm. I’ve always been a fan of Elf Power live and Andrew Rieger continued that streak. While Scott Spillane from Gerbils could occasionally be a little over the top, and one song was flat out terrible, he got me back with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “When I Was 17.” Perhaps even better was a heartfelt version of Randy Newman’s gorgeous “In Germany Before the War.”
It’s still very early in 2012, but I’m saying show of the year right now.