|(Photo courtesy of Blorb, who risked getting kicked out to take this totally unblurry photo)|
It was a cool January night in Cleveland, Ohio. There was a slight breeze, but even with that it was much warmer than the average January 13 most Clevelandites are accustomed to. This was the night my friend (we’ll call her Blorb, so as to not expose her identity and because I’m sure it will annoy her to no end that she didn’t get a “shout out”) and I sought to confirm the existence of Neutral Milk Hotel’s frontman, Jeff Mangum.
We were no strangers to his body of work, as Blorb introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel’s cult classic in the summer of 2010, and has since remained one of my favorite pieces of music. The title track of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was the first song I ever played when I moved into my first house – the Troup House in Bowling Green, which now lives in infamy.
Blorb and I wandered the streets of Cleveland looking for the concert venue – the Masonic Auditorium, which we actually parked right next to but we didn’t see until about 15 minutes of walking around aimlessly. The venue was a pretty awesome building, and I made the clutch decision of opting to buy the mezzanine seating tickets as opposed to the general admission. Blorb and I sat in the front row of the mezzanine, next to some incredible douchey hipsters who entertained us between sets with their discussions of the affinity with Pabst Blue Ribbon and plaid-designed clothing.
After two lackluster opening bands – one crappy folk rock group and a acoustic guitar duo who spent way too much time awkwardly trying to communicate with the audience – we finally got to see if Mangum was a man or myth.
A man did indeed walk onto the stage of the Masonic Auditorium that night. To the surprise of few, he was fully bearded, resembling Tom Hanks in Castaway with a flannel shirt. He looked like your standard, yet undersized, lumberjack – that is, until he picked up his guitar. Within a few quick strums of his six-string the crowd’s palpable nervousness/uneasiness/anxiousness erupted into excitement and hysteria. He opened his set with one of the more popular songs in his former band’s brief catalog, “Two Headed Boy.”
It takes a true talent for one man to sit down on a stool and play an acoustic instrument and mesmerize an entire auditorium full of people. Sure there was your basic assholes fighting and overzealous dancers, who would momentarily distract Blorb and I from Jeff, but his 13-song set ran seamlessly. The crowd sang along eerily to the opening lines of “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2” almost in an almost culthood manner. Hearing the entire crowd sing along with “I love you Jesus Christ,” was like a hipster/Catholic church hybrid.
My personal favorite moment from the show is when Mangum played my two favorite NMH songs back-to-back, “Holland 1945” and “Oh, Comely” and just fucking nailing them. The former is among the heaviest tracks Neutral Milk Hotel has in their two LPs, and I was curious as to how he would manage to match the energy of the heavily distorted sounds with a single acoustic guitar. Sure it was less loud, but it was every bit of awesome. In the 15 years since “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” released, Mangum’s voice is still as powerful, if not slightly off kilter as it was on the original record. And the performance of the 8-minute “Aeroplane” centerpiece, “Oh, Comely” had the perfect builds and troughs as the studio recording, as you would hear the entire crowd screaming at the top of their lungs on the song’s highest moments, and you could hear a pin drop during its lowest.
After the predicatble, but necessary choice of “Aeroplane’s” title track as the encore, Blorb and I left the venue in search of a late-night meal. As we walked up and down Euclid Avenue looking for any open restaurant, we discussed what we had just witnessed. Mangum, who was infamous for being a recluse, was surprisingly easy-going during the show’s performance, making easy conversation with the crowed, and responding with a modest “thank you” when an audience member appropriately screamed “this is amazing!” So is Mangum a man or a myth? He did seem like a pretty normal guy, that is until he picked up his guitar and sang.