by Will Butler
The last time I saw someone try to take on the whole three thousand-capacity Fox Theater alone with an acoustic guitar was nearly a year ago, when Robin Pecknold unplugged his dreadnought and stepped over his monitors to belt out a solo tune. At the time, it was impressive, and that youthful tenor rippled off the sparkling, chameleon ceilings and lavish rugs. It seemed incomparably pretty.
Last night, Jeff Mangum made Pecknold’s performance, in retrospect, look like a gaunt and admirable attempt, at best. It’s not so much that the Fleet Foxes frontman is pale in musicality, as much as that Jeff Mangum is just an impeccably well-oiled, trim, and efficient music-producing mechanism. His show last night was a rare thing today – a guy who’s willing to sit in front of thousands of people with a guitar. When you think about it that’s a frightening prospect, and it’s hard to think of many musicians who would choose to do so if given the option.
But Mangum also moved quickly, and thinking about it now, perhaps that was his secret. He was barely onstage, and “Two-Headed Boy, Part 2” was already over, shortly followed by “The King of Carrot Flowers” and “Holland, 1945.” It moved so quickly at times, it was hard to savor. And yet here rendered most of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in near-perfect replication. Mangum knew his crowd-pleasers, and he only paused between songs maybe one out of every three times.
Mangum plays "Two-Headed Boy Part 1" late last year:
Frankly, he gave very little emotionally except for what was promised – the well-rehearsed and always rewarding chinks in his lyrics, and his piercing and bold vocals. What did come through was his quirkiness as a songwriter, and his idiosyncrasies that we now take largely for granted as normal in indie-rock came through strong in his presence on stage. Like when he pronounced television as tell-uh-veee-shun; or when he belted out the words I love you Jesus Christ so loud that it drowned out any other sounds in the room.
Not to ramble on all starry-eyed. A show like this has its usual drawbacks: Weird crowds all jumbled up, with diehard fans, the journalists who came out to watch the diehard fans, and lots of couples who didn’t expect their Monday night date to leave them feeling so melancholy. Though I probably fall somewhere between the first and second and maybe even the third of those categories, it was a constant struggle to concentrate on both gauging everyone else’s reaction and still enjoy myself. Mangum played for a relatively short long-hour, giving the audience very little they didn’t already know. Some of the non-Aeroplane highlights were “Naomi” and second encore “Engine,” which was one of the first songs Mangum played for awestruck crowds a couple years ago when he reemerged from hiding. But with such a miniscule discography, and one with such well-defined “hits,” what else do you expect? It is, as someone reminded me, a reunion tour.
Mangum plays "King of Carrot Flowers" in all three parts, earlier in 2012:
But to reiterate, Mangum is in absolute top form. The songs of Neutral Milk Hotel, even if their writing was as dashed-off (on an airplane in 45 minutes?) as Mangum claims, are now etched into his head like a second language, and even fourteen years later, he recreates those strains down to a T. He plays the hell out of his guitar, and you heard it, you couldn’t help but wonder if that was the exact same guitar he’s used all along, it sounded so much the same.
At the end of the show, when Mangum stepped out for an encore, only about fifty minutes since he had started, it was hard not to feel a little desperation in the crowd. He hadn’t really spoken, except to say “you can sing along to this one,” or “now, what I want you to fuckin’ do on this one, is sing along.” One time he said “are you happy?”
Everyone was, but a little bit of validation was missing. The diehards, who five years ago really truly believed that they had about as much chance of seeing Jeff Mangum as seeing Elliott Smith, were finally having their dreams fulfilled; But he wouldn’t talk! The musical savior was onstage, and he wouldn’t speak. People yelled “We love you! We love you!” as if to show him that there was so much more to be said. Mangum finally gave one, surprisingly sincere offering, “I love you too.”
Do we believe him? It doesn’t really matter. We don’t love him because he loves us, we love him for other reasons.