Footage of Mangum playing a show in Athens, GA, 1997.
asbury hall, babeville, Concert Review, jeff mangum, neutral milk hotel, tom —
A few years ago when a new Neutral Milk Hotel website surfaced announcing a tour and selling a definitive box-set, it was the first official, uncontroversial communication that the band had given anyone in many years. And while the initial two batches featured performances in Toronto and NYC, there were no Upstate dates and the odds of a Buffalo show were pretty slim. The last time Jeff Mangum played in WNY was in 1998 at the Bug Jar in Rochester. Then back in October, it was announced that Mangum would visit cities he had never played before on one final acoustic tour. Buffalo was at the top of that list. And the WNY chapter of the Neutral Milk Hotel cult rejoiced.
Wednesday night was something of a reverie. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Mangum’s last and most lionized release with NMH before they broke up, was released on my 9th birthday; I was introduced to his evocative sound like millions of college students in the early to late aughts were: through crummy laptop speakers in a dry and grungy dorm room. Who, before wednesday night, had ever experienced Mangum’s vocals via the expensive speakers of a concert hall? I’m guessing less that 1% of those in attendance.
So when a heavily whiskered Mangum came out, sat down and picked up his acoustic guitar and started singing a wide-eyed “Two-Headed Boy,” it was extremely surreal. A shot of adrenaline tore up my spine, something I hadn’t felt the slight of since I saw Bob Dylan or Sufjan Stevens for the first time, but it was still very different. I was seeing and hearing a ghost. Mangum’s vocal composure hadn’t changed a bit.
He went on to play “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” without mics, which all mysteriously failed for just that one song. He dragged his chair and scurried up to the right of the stage and belted the song across the dark sea of heads that filled the cavernous church hall. Bright flash lights from behind the stage glowed on the musician in an attempt to make up for the lighting which also subsequently went dead. He fittingly went right into “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3” as all the power came back on and starred maddeningly into the crowd beckoning us to sing along as he half-yawped, “I love you Jesus Christ!” We all chimed in, even singing the triumphant horn melody, “Da! Da! Da-da-da-da-da-da-da...!” How could we not?
Mangum had four guitars on stage with him and changed between them intermittently, but the set was pretty strait-forward as he maintained strumming patterns identical to his records, and even had a stellar french horn accompaniment from Jeremy Thal of Briars of North America (who played an awesome opening set) on “Oh Comely” and the encore “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” which brought down the house with applause. Mangum also sang a few favorites off On Avery Island with “Gardenhead” and “Naomi” which was wonderful.
While it didn't make a huge impact on the night, the only down side at points were people obliviously chatting during the show and giving Mangum some playful crowd yells, which Mangum would smile at and reply wryly “What?”
Jeff Mangum’s performance at Asbury Hall proved to be very memorable as he wailed and swept across a most adored and storied catalog of folk music. What makes Mangum such a great musician is so striking evident in the way he carries himself. He takes his songs seriously, but wields a wise smile all along, until his powerful gust of a voice knocks us over with its poetically poignant unadulterated force. I’ll never forget Wednesday night’s show, as it will most likely be the first and last time Buffalo will ever see or hear from the legendary artist in our midst again.