How The Notes All Bend And Reach Above The Trees

 I saw Jeff Mangum perform last Monday night, at the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.

Concerts, for me, are a bit about chasing the dragon. I'm always trying to pursue an exclusive, meaningful and rare live moment that I can always look back on. In service of this hunt, I jump at secret shows, fan club mailing lists, or special venues like the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I don't know what kind of special moment I'm looking for -- a rare guest, a legendary performance -- but I'll know when it happens.

Indie fans broadly believe that the music they listen to is special anyhow. Part of the surface appeal of indie music being so intimate and "underground" is that it can easily feel personal. It beckons the listener to not just be a fan, but to make it part of their identity and emotionally invest in the culture. That's generally how all music fandom works, but in indie rock, it's one of the most potent ingredients and biggest selling points.

When it comes to special, there are as few as special as Neutral Milk Hotel. If indie rock has unfinished plot threads, the NMH one has the biggest potential payoff. Their status came about from making a standout album with IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA, calling it quits afterward, and then rereleasing the album in 2005, when indie music blogs were hitting their stride. Despite this revival of interest, we heard nary a peep from them, to the point where people called lead singer Jeff Mangum, "Indie Jesus." We all awaited his return. So when Mangum announced a national tour, the decision was easy.

Although I regret not springing for Coachella this year, getting a chance to see Mangum the Monday after was a good consolation prize. I secured front balcony seats and hoped that this would be Something Special -- perhaps even the ultimate Something Special. How could it not be? Here was Jeff Mangum, returning from his Salinger-like retreat, for the first time in 14 years. This is a build-up that doesn't come to artists often.

I've become more conscious of my fanboy mythologizing in the last few years. It's not a healthy way idealize artists, and some actively resent it. There's also the possibility that they'll disappoint you -- with some boneheaded comment, or outrageous act, or terrible album. So I try and temper my enthusiasm, separate art from artist, and work on my hyperbole. Despite this, the hype and story behind Mangum is hard to resist. Even I, as a Johnny-come-lately that discovered the band with the 2005 rerelease, was swept up by the thought of seeing Mangum live. I listened to that album and their debut, ON AVERY ISLAND, because they were so good but also because we had no choice. A couple dozen songs, that's all we had, so we made them count and then some.

The Orpheum is a classy art deco theater, which is not especially rare in LA, but what sets this apart is that it's large. The ceilings are higher than The Wiltern, and the intricate flourishes stretch all the way from top to bottom. There is minimal leg room in the balcony seating, but it escalates so that everyone has a reasonable view. The show was opened by Scott Spillane of Neutral Milk Hotel accompanied by Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter, billed only as "Scott, Laura and Andrew." They're a trio of multi instrumentalists, playing some great, sparse and melodic ballads that fit right into the weird 90's alt-rock/folk sound that Neutral Milk Hotel springs from. It was decidedly appropriate and they dished out a few delightful covers.

Some time before 10 o'clock, Mangum took to the stage. It was a short, determined walk and he began strumming almost immediately. He didn't let the audience get the applause out, he didn't start with some banter. He made a beeline for his seat and started playing. Normally, I would take this as a sign of an artist being uncomfortable on stage, perhaps feeling more at ease singing than being the center of adulation, the way Elliott Smith allegedly was. But Jeff Mangum is a mystery, so it felt pointless to guess.

The mystery is part of it. Because of his hiatus and the myth cultivated around him, everyone in the audience was hungry to know something about him. Every break between songs was an opportunity to break through the fog and learn a tiny bit. People shouted questions and requests at him. How was Coachella? It was great. Can you play "Engine"? Sure, I'll play “Engine” later. Play whatever you want! How about “Ghost?"

It shouldn't have surprised me that he would talk back. When someone is a blank canvas for so long, your imagination takes over and projects personality types that best suit your needs. Early in the evening he asked in a strange and quiet way: “Are you guys happy?” The crowd hooted briefly. “Will you guys sing for me?” The crowd hollered, this time loudly.

The sing-a-long aspect of concerts is tricky. I always remember a terrifying Bright Eyes story that was going around the internet message boards when I was in high school: during a song, the crowd began to sing along, and Oberst stopped immediately to tell them to shut up. I can understand how the participation of 1,200 eager fans can ruin the intimacy of a song, especially a quiet, extremely personal ballad. At the same time, some songs are so infectious that singing them with a massive crowd, without fear or shame, is one of those special live moments. In Mangum's case, the crowd was happy to oblige, and whenever they began to falter he would ask again. I wondered what it meant. Again, was it a shyness thing? Was he more comfortable, able to lose himself in the crowd, if everyone was singing along? “I want you guys to drown me out,” he said, and we tried.

There is no getting past the power of his voice on those songs, though. He's not a flashy singer, but he wasn't afraid to show off his pipes. He would extend the “eeee” at the end of a “dee dee dee” riff, the way pop singers hold high notes, and then just when you think he should run out of air, he goes right into “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 & 3.” It's a deliberate, impressive move, and a well-earned confident bit of showing off. It struck me that this is as powerful as “folk” music can get. I'm not sure about applying the genre to all his music, since the term has always been weirdly defined and used as shorthand for writing, but let me put it this way: when I watch “No Direction Home,” and I see archival footage of Bob Dylan strumming simple chords at a mic set up at a railroad station, and singing his throat out, I feel like I now have an idea what that was like. Even on CD, Mangum has always had such commanding and unwavering melodies. His simple strums sound larger than they are, filling in for an entire band, wrapping up the tension of the drums and bass in one instrument.

Because of the way Neutral Milk Hotel songs are crafted, each song was a trip. They're built on a series of standout moments, with a constnat forward momentum, as each powerful line leads onto the next. The audience would come to anticipate them the further he went into a song: “We know who our enemies are” on “Oh Comely,” or “God is a place where some holy spectacle lies,” on “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” or “Save my soul from all these troubled times, and all thedrugsIdon'thavethegutstotaketosoothemymind,” on “Song Against Sex.” It was exciting to see these lines on the horizon and feel the shared anticipation. Like all the best poets, Mangum's writing makes sure that every line counts.

The last song is one of the most important parts of my concert experience. Part of my waiting-in-line routine is to try and figure out what would end the main set and what would finish off the encore, concluding the entire night. The setlist at The Orpheum was a little nuts – he had started with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” one of the emotional highpoints of IN THE AEROPLANE and before the encore he had killed it on “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1” and “Oh Comely,” the other anchors of the album. He even brought a Daniel Johnston cover, “True Love Will Find You in the End,” which caused a whispered “Wow” to fall from my lips. During the encore, when he announced the next song would be his absolute last, I couldn't figure out what it could possibly be. “Communist Daughter?” A bagpipe romp through “Untitled?” Dare I say it, something new? What was I forgetting?

But, of course, it was the title track “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” He asked us once more to “sing really fuckin' loud” and the audience stood up, unprompted. The back right corner of the balcony had turned into a dance floor, where skinny kids were flailing their arms as hard as they could during anything uptempo, and swaying in unison, arms over shoulders, during the slower pieces. For this last song, during this limited tour, they made sure to get everything out.

It's a pretty song with a lot of good feelings, but not what I would have expected to be a concert ender. But being there, after going through 16 songs from his two albums released over 14 years ago, it felt stunningly appropriate and final. “One day we will die, and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea; but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see.”

It captured the whimsy and weirdness in the way we have constructed a myth and magic around him. He's not a sacred figure in music, and only time will tell how legendary he will be in the larger music culture. But on that night, we were all unapologetic myth makers, casting spells on ourselves, on each other, on the night. “Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all,” he sang, and then he walked away with our applause.