Jeff Mangum at the Union Chapel, 13th March 2012

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Mar 20 2012, 22h37

So last week, James persuaded me to come down to London at the last minute to go and see Jeff Mangum play at the Union Chapel. We'd both really wanted to go to ATP but even though we just about managed to persuade ourselves that we could afford it, everyone else's plans had fallen through and we hadn't managed to get a group together for a chalet, and so we eventually gave up on the idea.

We knew about the two gigs Jeff was playing at the Union Chapel in London (which were also put on by ATP), but they'd sold out within about 5 minutes and tickets seemed to be exchanging hands for exorbitant prices online, so we never really considered it as a possibility. Then a few days beforehand, James began constantly stalking the last.fm event page for the gig and managed to snag himself a ticket. The day before the gig, I talked to him about the possibility of getting one for me, and he messaged a couple of people, finally procuring one around lunchtime on the day of the gig. Whew. So then I just needed to dash down to London at the last minute and head straight to the venue!

I spent the night before wondering if all this bother was even worth it. I don't go to anywhere near as many gigs as I used to, and I've kind of got out of the habit of dashing around the country at a few hours' notice. Still, I thought, it's Jeff Mangum. He'll probably become a hermit again soon. Could be my only chance to see him.

I turned up at Highbury & Islington around 45 minutes before the doors opened and joined James in the queue. The girl behind him had brought a rose for Jeff. The guys behind her were sat on the pavement with a KFC family bucket and big bottle of Pepsi. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. People ahead were drinking beers. Everyone seemed very settled in to their queuing, and pleased to be anticipating the gig. Occasionally someone would have a little excitable moment about SEEING JEFF MANGUM. Even I did, after a while.

Eventually they let us in. I'd been to the Union Chapel once before, but didn't remember it all that well. It was extremely pretty. There were candles placed all around the gallery level, flickering gently in the draughts of the church. We managed to snag third row seats and were amazed at how good a view we were going to have. The wooden pews rapidly became uncomfortable.

I wasn't a big fan of the support act, The Music Tapes. I only realised while looking them up after the gig that the frontman was also in Neutral Milk Hotel. Anyone who destroys a violin bow within 1-2 songs sends a little shudder of distress through me. Anyway. I sat through it. It happened. Let's not concern ourselves with it here. It's not the main event.

It was an odd gig. I'd heard people say that Jeff Mangum couldn't fill a large stage, that he'd always played small venues in the past and he couldn't scale it up, but I didn't know if that was true. I worried that it might not be very engaging. I didn't know what his performance might be like.

Jeff Mangum came out with no prelude and everyone cheered. It was just him, and his chair surrounded by four guitars on stands. He looked a little crazy, and obviously nervous. I wasn't sure what to expect. He played the first couple of songs without saying anything, his eyes darting around the room from person to person. Very very nervous. I almost wondered if he might run away before the end of the gig, but he's been touring lately, I'm sure he knows what he's let himself in for. Still, he just looked like he did not want to be there. Whenever he sang one of the louder parts of a song, one of the parts in their songs where his voice gets particularly strident, his mouth would open hugely, and he looked even crazier. The music sounded great, but he just looked very odd. I mean, given the fact that he stopped Neutral Milk Hotel and basically hid for about 10 years, I could see why he might be acting or feeling a bit anxious, but still.

During Song Against Sex (I think), his guitar string snapped and he kept singing the song all the while, still seated and facing the microphone while he replaced his guitar in one of the stands and picked up the next one along to resume the song. Very neat.

After he had played a few songs, he started to talk a little bit more between them. He was quiet and polite, and so were the audience. Everyone would be silent (and everyone stayed seated throughout the gig), just moving a little in the pews throughout the songs and then cheering and clapping in between each one. He got the audience to sing along about halfway through, when he played The King of Carrot Flowers. It sounded amazing in the church. Though as he went straight into Part 2 and everyone sang along with the "I love you, Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do..." section, it felt very weird that everyone was singing those lines in the chapel! I always interpreted that part just as an exclamation, but here it came across totally differently. After that the audience joined in on a few more songs, usually when he encouraged us to do so.

I realised partway through the gig that it felt almost hypnotic, everyone was so focused on him, so quiet through the songs and so loud in between. The older songs were good (and I was really glad he played some of them) but not as interesting as the songs from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. When he played those songs, he seemed very emotional, like he was almost being possessed by the music he was playing. He seemed to be really feeling each song as he played it, and seemed almost upset for a lot of the gig. Everyone stared at him as he played, and the candles fluttered above, and I got goosebumps as he sang. It was a very intense performance, and mesmerising.

He finished his set with Two-Headed Boy (amazing with the crowd singing along) and played it straight through into The Fool. I was really glad he did that with a few songs during the gig - played them straight them into the next one, as they're all so linked and blurred together on the album that I wasn't sure how you could separate them all. As he played The Fool, it was just him with his guitar, but then suddenly a band kicked in like on the album! There was brass and percussion coming through the stage amps, but the band weren't on stage! Everyone looked around to try to work it out, and after a few more moments it became evident that they were walking up the aisles from the back of the church, playing as they came. It was a really striking moment. At first it seemed magical, as if an invisible band had just kicked in from nowhere.

During the last couple of songs, which seemed slightly more hopeful, he finally started to seem happier. As soon as he stopped playing everyone jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation, insane clapping and cheering from the whole chapel full of people. Of course, we knew he wasn't done yet. He came back on stage and played In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as the encore. Everyone sang along and it sounded brilliant. At the end he thanked everyone, the band, the audience; he was smiling a lot, properly happy now finally. He still seemed awkward but over the course of the gig somehow everyone in the room had warmed to him from that inauspicious beginning.

He went offstage and everyone refused to leave. He didn't come back out, but the venue turned on the lights and started to play music and still the whole audience stood there for minutes, cheering and clapping and refusing to go, for much longer than I've ever seen an audience try to keep things going.

After the gig, I felt like I understood the oddness of Neutral Milk Hotel a bit more. When Jeff Mangum first came out on stage, he seemed to lack pretty much any charisma at all, as if he didn't want to be there and didn't know how to treat the audience in front of him, but by the end he had just really drawn everyone in with the way he had performed his songs. It was a very unusual-feeling gig, but a very memorable and interesting one. I haven't written up a gig like this in a long time, but with this one I immediately wanted to and have been thinking about it since. I've been listening to Neutral Milk Hotel all week and thinking about watching Jeff Mangum play these songs, and also thinking about the article Will Sheff (of Okkervil River) wrote about the album, which you can find here and
which you should also read.

Setlist:
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
Holland, 1945
Song Against Sex
A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You
Engine
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
Oh Comely
Ghost
Naomi
April 8th
Two-Headed Boy
The Fool

Encore:
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea


Postscript:
I heard a guy in the pew behind us talking to the guys next to him about how he had seen Jeff Mangum play a gig in Boston and had waited around afterwards to talk to him. One of the things he recounted was that he had said "I've seen you a few times now and you play all these Neutral Milk Hotel songs, have you written anything new since then?" and Jeff Mangum had said "Oh yeah, I've written a lot of stuff, lots more songs, especially in the last few years." And the fan had said "Oh cool! So are you going to perform those some time?"
"Nope."
Which is sad, but I totally understand why.

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