Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum performs iconic album solo in Ithaca

Review: Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum played a solo acoustic show supported by The Music Tapes and Tall Firs at the State Theater in Ithaca, NY on Wednesday Feb. 13.

Jeff. Muthaf-cking. Mangum.

I was sort of hoping he would suck. I really did. It might’ve knocked him back down to our level—humanize him after 15 years of standing atop the indie-rock pantheon, trying to hide from the public eye behind his beard and cap and flannel shirts.

But he didn’t suck.

Of course he didn’t—he sounds exactly like he does on his records. (He thanked the audience several times for listening to his records; he still seems somehow unsure of his success, like it’s all a mistake or some dream he’s yet to wake from.) But Jeff—I’d been calling him “Mr. Mangum” but it was a strangely informal affair, and he looked and talked like a guy hanging out at a bar with his friends—wasn’t how I envisioned him.

I expected some unfathomable religious experience, with the proliferation of epiphanies and staggering myriads of revelations. Instead, he was very here, very real. He sat static in a chair, asked for the lights to be dimmed (they never were) and just strummed away, his voice cackling and popping on the high notes coming out of the speakers.

He opened with “Oh, Comely”, perhaps the most somber and cryptically introspective song on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; the audience immediately began cheering and clapping and hollering and dancing. Dancing… to Jeff Mangum. It was more than a little annoying. Jeff is singing, “Oh comely/ All of your friends are all letting you blow/ Bristling and ugly, bursting with fruits falling out from the holes/ Of some pretty, bright, and bubbly friend/ You could need to say comforting things in your ear,” and people were yelling at him to play “Freebird.” (Someone yelled back, “He’s not gonna f-cking play ‘Freebird!’” which almost alleviated the aggravation).

But after the agitation of inebriated 30-year-olds clearly lusting for a particular borough some five hours southeast of Ithaca had dissipated, the atmosphere got mellower. Three songs in I just closed my eyes and let the music wash over me, and I had a much better time.

Jeff played a few songs off of On Avery Island, including “Gardenhead (Leave Me Alone)” a standout track from their oft-ignored album. It’s almost painfully obvious that everything not on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is so inferior to everything on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s like comparing Wings to the Beatles, or the Foo Fighters to Nirvana, or Pink Floyd after John Waters left. The “Siamese twin” of “Oh, Comely,” “Oh, Sister”, both of which Jeff wrote the same day, sounds like the emaciated, lesser-loved sibling to an overachiever.

The songs that worked best—and by worked best I mean transcended the annoying audience trying to be part of the act—were, oddly, the louder songs, when Jeff asked us to “f-cking sing loud” because the room kind of came together instead of some people drunkenly yelling, some trying to immerse themselves in the glory of Jeff Mangum, and some just necking (to the most unromantic songs imaginable, I’d like to point out). I was surprised how well “Ghost”, “Holland, 1945” and, of course, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” worked, given the louder, fuller nature of their recorded counterparts. The audience provided oral interpretations of the horns and accordions and other missing instruments, lending a strange surreal impromptu feeling to the show; whereas In the Aeroplane sounds kind of like a chthonic, kaleidoscopic marching band bellowing their final reverie, Jeff’s terse, sparse solo rendition of the full-band songs invites participation.

Video via drew9308 on YouTube. "Two Headed Boy, Part 2," Houston, Texas, Jan 31: Mangum's stop in Ithaca is part of an acoustic tour from January to April across the U.S.

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