Jeff Mangum at State Theatre, 02/04/12

Jeff Mangum
State Theatre, Minneapolis
Saturday, February 4, 2012

With Saturday's performance at the State Theater, Jeff Mangum ended the long and curious estrangement from his public which began shortly after the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the album which has defined him in absentia since its release almost 14 years ago. In that time, his fans have doubled and tripled and crossed a gulf of generations, many of them imagining a deep kinship with the man they've come to know through that magnificent LP he left upon departing.
During his performance, Mangum smiled, joked, demured, and blushed. He gave anecdotes and thanks. He was inviting and warm, yet maintained the mystery of his many fathoms. He sang beautifully. But within these many virtues laid the priceless affirmation that perhaps the long, quiet kinship had not been as one-way or as imaginary as we might have come to fear during his long absence.

The opening set by Mangum's Elephant 6 colleagues Andrew Reiger, Laura Carter, and Scott Spillane was a patchy, occasionally moving pastiche of covers, rarities, and new material, ranging from the breathtaking "Camarillo" to a spiritually unfaithful, poorly chosen cover of Randy Newman's "In Germany Before The War." It was an uneven and affectionate showing, as Elephant 6 music has always been, and it made for an appetizing prelude to Mangum's set.

After the intermission, Mangum entered to a deafening ovation, and opened his set with "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2." So astonishing was Mangum's voice (he was stronger by far than on any of Neutral Milk Hotel's recorded material) and so moving was his recitation of Aeroplane's most despairing song that it was hard to remember that his audience, for the most part, was beholding him for the very first time.

Mangum spent the early set unaccompanied, playing "Holland, 1945", "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone", and the anthology-only "Engine" from an armory of accoustic guitars beside his chair. It was a magnificent choice -- going acoustic showcased the brilliance of his vocals and proved that his voice and his guitar have always done his heavy lifting for him. Mangum's voice was not the idiosyncratic whine which divided his fans from his critics in the '90s, but a practiced, jubilant countertenor, as clear and purifying as a morning bell.

By mid-set, Mangum began to make entreaties for the audience to sing-along, which they robustly did on radio singles (well, college-radio singles anyway) like "King of Carrot Flowers" parts one, two, and three. But his audience was either unwilling or unable to fully follow Mangum's commands, perhaps due to a desire to hear his voice over their own, or to the desperate rapture in which Mangum's performance held them.

But the efforts of the audience pleased Mangum greatly, and his pleasure redoubled the efforts of his audience until, beginning to play "Two-Headed Boy pt. 1," Mangum asked his audience to rise and walk and approach the altar. The aisles and orchestra pit before the stage were quickly aswarm, and the audience became a choir of hundreds, many weeping, many embracing one another, some too overcome to sing.

It is this moment that will leave us at a loss, trembling and dumb, if ever we are asked if we saw Jeff Mangum play. Few performances in memory have brought such agonizing anticipation to such magnificent fruit, and though the glimpse of Mangum that it offered may have been fleeting, its effect was as transformative and as impossible to express as a witnessed miracle.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I've certainly listened to no songs as deeply or extensively as those on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, and no artist has been more staunchly represented on my mix tapes. Yet I entered Saturday's show anxious that Mangum would disappoint me, or that I would fail to be moved by his presence. With regret, I'm unable to fully express the extent of those misapprehensions.

The crowd: Mangum's audience was much younger than one might expect. For the thirty-somethings who spent their adolesences listening to Neutral Milk Hotel, it was at once sobering and encouraging to find many second-generation fans in the crowd.

Set List

Two-Headed Boy pt. 2
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Little Birds
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2&3
April 8th
Oh, Comely
Two-Headed Boy
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (encore)

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