Andrew, Scott, and Laura (of Elf Power and The Gerbils)
Monday, April 9, 2012
The Fox Theater (Oakland)
Better than: Jeff Mangum staying home -- again.
Jeff Mangum has a powerful whine and terrific pitch. That's not meant as a backhanded compliment -- it's the truth. There is no escaping the nasal quality of his voice (it annoys some; not me), but I never realized its strength before. He powered through his solo acoustic set on Monday night with volume (and dead-perfect tonality) that almost overtook the Fox Theater's P.A. The show was not the ideal pairing of venue and artist, but it represented a rare opportunity to see and hear one of this generation's most elusive and sure-footed musicians.
The show was part of Mangum's much-anticipated tour -- his first in over a decade. His performance was emotional and energetic, a testament to the persistent talent of this retiring artist of sparse output. A Salinger-esque persona, Mangum has mostly kept out of the public eye since shortly after his former band, Neutral Milk Hotel, released the acclaimed album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in 1998.
The sheer force of Mangum's talent as both songwriter and performer blew through the crowd like hot wind from the moment he came onstage. He tore through songs from his solo recordings as well as Neutral Milk Hotel's two albums. They went fast, too. No slow jams here. Mangum kept the songs at their proper tempos, and didn't spend too much time on audience chit-chat. And he never once made any concessions to stagecraft to add visual dynamics to the show (it was just Jeff and his guitars), because he never needed it.
Despite Mangum's big talent, the show was too small in scale for the Fox. Performers book whatever hall they can fill, but Mangum is best seen in a more intimate space. Bob Dylan had no trouble filling Carnegie Hall in the 1960s, but even today that footage doesn't sound or feel quite right. Mangum, too, belongs somewhere small, smoky, and maybe even dirty. The Fox is too grand -- yet he still managed to fill every nook and cranny of the room with his voice.
The show had another dimension that added a layer of discomfort to the overall experience, and that was the crowd. This was no docile Monday night bunch. The homogeneous crowd of 20- and 30-something hipster carbon copies reminded me of the contrast between my generation and the characters on the 1980s television program thirtysomething: we are egomaniacs without kids; they were egomaniacs with kids. Unlike other recent shows I have attended, this show's audience was so self-assured that they talked through most of the performance. (This wasn't just in one area of the theater; I moved around throughout the show.) The exception was during Mangum's first three or four songs, when the novelty of his appearance was enough to get them to stop looking at their fucking iPhones for a few minutes -- long enough, even, to join him on a moving sing-along during "The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three."
The tickets to the Mangum show were $36 -- but in most cases, that money was decidedly spent to not watch Mangum perform. The danger of nostalgia is that it can turn you into a reactionary, but I do wish the social contract was still sufficiently intact that when we attend a concert, we can assume that everyone is there for the same reason.
Refreshingly, Mangum was as unassuming as the crowd was assuming. He occupied the stage humbly, performed with complete devotion to the songs, and gave his audience what they paid for -- whether they paid attention or not.
Opener: The opening act was Andrew, Scott, and Laura (of Elf Power and The Gerbils), whose set of ethereal ballads dragged the room's energy down a couple of notches too far. Appropriately enough, their elven roots seem to have transformed them into a trio of minstrels from MAD magazine's version of Game of Thrones, performing art-folk tales for the D&D set. (Scott is Scott Spillane -- a former member of Neutral Milk Hotel -- and dare we draw attention to his resemblance to George R. R. Martin?)