Live Review, 4/9/12: Jeff Mangum Comes Out of His Shell at the Fox

Categories: Last Night

Mangum.jpg
File photo by Cory Greenwell

Jeff Mangum
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.

Mangchkn.jpg
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.

Critic's Notebook

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?)

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Location Info

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Fox Theater - Oakland

1807 Telegraph, Oakland, CA

Category: Music

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31 comments
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WCreature
WCreature

I'm really sorry, but I hate to be the dissenter here.  I saw the show at the GAMH and was not only unimpressed, but depressed. Not at the audience, which seemed fine, though there was more talking at the back of the room when I went there then I preferred. I was uncomfortable with the performance. the Jeff Mangum show last night was really quite sad -- a true nostalgia show. Even though the songs were performed well and passionately, they were still 15 years old and really not changed at all. I love Jeff Mangum and his voice was crazy strong, but I left the show feeling like I left a nostalgia show, and Mangum really was just a two-headed boy tied to strings in a glass jar of formaldehyde, preserved but not quite real, and we were all standing there tapping on the glass.

JPJOE
JPJOE

Maybe he should have added a drum machine ?  Why would he change those songs ?they are perfect as is.. You have to remember Jeff stopped playing about 8 months after Aeroplane came out so its not like he ran the stuff into the ground the first time.  Anything over ten years old could be called nostalgic but great music is timeless.. I'm not sure there are many artists putting records out right now that will be remembered so fondly 15 years from now.

und1sk0
und1sk0

While it would have been nice to see him play at his previous night's show in SF, I thought the show was a work of sheer magic - in spite of the size of the venue. The crowd sing-alongs were something I haven't experienced that enthusiastically.. ever?As for the age of the audience, a bear standing next to me during one of the later and more well-known pieces off AutS asked me "where did all these young kids come from?" "Sorry, what?" "All these youngsters.. it's been 14 years since this album came out." I had no good answer for him.. I discovered NMH in the early 2000s, and I'm in my late 30s. I guess good music is ageless.Great show, though. Glad I got to see him play - I worry that there may come a day when, like with Elliott Smith, Nick Drake or Kurt Cobain, Mangum might have enough of us. I hope that never happens.

Jacksonentzulo
Jacksonentzulo

Well, some NERD has to film the thing so we can view it on Youtube.  Just because nobody's going apeshite (like the enthusiastic people nearby me) doesn't mean they appreciate it or just doing it for cred.  This review was whiny, pretentious and unrealistic.  So what, you also expect the band to do timed jumps like New Found Glory!?!?!

winning
winning

like, i'm minutes away from seeing Radiohead for the first time and yet I'm stuck on these youtube videos of the last two nights @ Jeff Mangum

winning
winning

and what a hip, hip, crowd

winning
winning

Both nights at Oakland were pretty much perfect for me, with Tuesday being his best gig ever, undoubtedly. Things are going very well for Jeff Mangum.

Clark
Clark

The crowd for Tuesday's show -- also in Oakland at the Fox --  was incredibly rapt and quiet, in fact I commented on that fact to my wife. It was an amazing show and I think everyone understood that.

Whitney Phaneuf
Whitney Phaneuf

If I had known how amazing he'd be, I would have bought tickets for all three Bay Area shows. One of the best concerts of 2012 so far. 

Unfortunately, the Fox on Monday night had a noisy crowd. I had to ask a few chatty, drunk dudes to shut up.

Rubie
Rubie

Last night fulfilled a dream of finally hearing NHM/Jeff live after years and years of wishing and hoping and then never really thinking it would be a reality….unfortunately I read this before heading out to the show and during the set, I just felt sad for the author. I will take over, go to shows and blog about them.  The crowd was mesmerized and grateful for the night of music. It has been awhile since I was at a show where everyone put their phones/cameras away and just lived in the moment.  And after reading the other comments, it appears Monday night was similar. I would recommend focusing on the Jeff’s haunting vocals that only were elevated with the addition of the horns, cello, etc.  And how can you not think the Fox is magical….

Payton_vege
Payton_vege

Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

David Carpenter
David Carpenter

While their may be some hipster Elf Power and Gerbils diehards, that set was definitely a let down energy wise.  Don't agree with the writer though about audience distractions.  We watched from the second tier on the lower level and did not see a cell phone the entire night, which was refreshing.  

Personally, I hate the sound at the FOX, don't understand why so much money was spent on the restoration and it still sounds flat.   Spent the better part of every show I've ever seen their looking for the sweet spot, to no avail.  

Thought the show started off a bit awkward, with Jeff looking out of place and the songs sounding rushed, but he definitely found his stride.  First encore  was epic.  

Gordon Elgart
Gordon Elgart

I was in the Mezzanine for this show, and the two guys in front of me got up to get beers at the moment he started "Oh, Comely." That doesn't seem like an appropriate time to get beers if you're a fan, right? They came back to their seats and started up an animated conversation. I gave them thirty seconds, leaned over to them and said, "Keep it down please," and sure enough, they did.

Other than that, the crowd was pretty much all-in on the performance. Sorry you got stuck in a bad spot, Ian.

Michael Frash
Michael Frash

Imagine how small it will sound at Coachella Main Stage.

JG
JG

nah, he will be fine at Coachella.. I doubt they'd put him on main stage..probably the 2nd smaller one..

You did see where the writer said it filled every nook and cranny of the venue..?  Theres no question of Mangum's command of the stage.  Despite all the contradictions in this review he states that pretty clearly..

Jay
Jay

Agree with most others, it was very quiet in the Mezzanine.

Sofawatkins
Sofawatkins

Stood dead center first level up from floor and the only crowd noise was from people singing. Show felt intimate on the floor but i could see the reviewers point if you were further back. Amazing show.

Ian Maile
Ian Maile

 You just described how I feel at pretty much every Bay Area show I've ever been to. I think part of the problem is that most of the folks who bought tickets to Mangum's show did so just for cred. There are always different cliques and groups of people at shows, you made note of this yourself with your D&D set comment. The unique thing about seeing a performer like Jeff Mangum though, is that so little is known about the performer, that people have no idea how to react to the emotional intensity of his music in a live setting. Unfortunately, our generations response is to immediately try and criticize whatever it is they're having trouble understanding, or take pictures. Technology has effectively destroyed the internal monologue. I was on the floor for Andrew, Scott, and Laura's opening set, and I was surprised to hear more people talking and trying to figure out what instruments were being played than actually listening to the music. It was a Zanzithophone, by the way. Kim Cooper mentions it in her book on "Aeroplane". After the opening set I adjourned to the stairs and geeked out to Jeff Mangum. His performance transcended the idea of live performance for me; what I experienced felt more akin to some kind of circus performer completely in command of his audience, the only reaction fitting being to sing  and stomp along; Pure spectacle, the only goal being to have a good time. Remember Casey Burch, nobody ever went broke underestimating how much the average "show-goer" actually knows about the artist they're going to see.    

Jen Menjivar
Jen Menjivar

Like those who were also there last night and are commenting, I also disagree with your assessment of the crowd. Everyone was completely still, mesmerized by his performance.  Sounds like you've got something against Oakland. 

Ian S. Port
Ian S. Port

Wait, so someone has a different experience than you, and suddenly they've "got something against Oakland?" How did you get to that conclusion, exactly?

Jen Menjivar
Jen Menjivar

Maybe Daneolson1971's comment is more accurate-- venue snobbery? It just seemed to me that this review was more about the people there/the location of the show and less about the actual performance, which was amazing. 

Daneolson1971
Daneolson1971

I was front row , against the stage barrier, main floor. Crowd seemed quiet and attentive, I was never distracted by noise (during his set, at least). You're simply fortunate to have seen both nights, one in a half-sized venue. I saw NMH twice before Aeroplane was ever released, so I was happy just to hear such passionate versions of those songs finally.

Ian S. Port
Ian S. Port

I think it's probably less "venue snobbery" than the fact that the general admission, non-seated sections of shows — which is where the press pretty much always gets tickets — tend to be louder than the balcony or mezzanine, where people are sitting.

Daneolson1971
Daneolson1971

Probably venue snobbery (not bashing writer for it). Honestly, given choice, who wouldn't rather see him in GAMHs more intimate setting? That being said, no regrets at all. This was my 3rd time seeing him (1st solo though). Did not disappoint. Transcended my wildest hopes. Anyways. As I was saying, I drove down to the show from Sacramento. The GAMH show was a last minute addition to his dates out here. Had I not bought tix back in January for last nights show, I would've jumped on GAMH. But I have no regrets!

Daneolson1971
Daneolson1971

Disagree about crowd noise. Jeff was more chatty last night than both times I saw NMH (Chicago '96 w/ Butterglory: Chicago '97 w/ Olivia Tremor Control). Crowd around me (front row, against stage barrier, left side) was attentive , rapt, sang loudly along to the songs. I was not disappointed at all. A perfect set, a respectful crowd, and an amaziing night in Oakland.

Ian S. Port
Ian S. Port

I was at Sunday's excellent GAMH show, too, and I was amazed how quiet it was. The mood was respectful without being annoyingly reverential. It was almost too quiet to sing along! Seemed like the smaller venue suited the minimal production (basically, Jeff sitting down with a guitar), too.

Matt Bruns
Matt Bruns

Did I see the same show?  People may have chatted near the reviewer, but not by where we were sitting.  In fact, I wouldn't agree with much of the negativity about the show here.  Certainly by me, people were receptive to Scott, Laura, and Andrew, yelping for particular Elf Power and Gerbils songs.

As for Jeff Mangum, people were not chatting things up and constantly on their phone.  Most of the people I saw were completely enraptured throughout the entire show.  The crowd also screamed until they got a second encore, bringing the house lights down again.  

As for the social contract, I have no comment as to its proper application to rock concerts.

Becky
Becky

You should've gone to the GAMH show instead. We even got an extra 2 song encore after the house lights had already come up because people refused to leave.

NMH fan
NMH fan

you should have came to show at GAMH easter sunday.  Way better crowd, and the only time I'd seen an act come back on stage AFTER the lights came up and do another encore (2nd).  Show was epic.  

http://music-defined.com/
http://music-defined.com/

That's too bad. The crowd in Chicago was absolutely reverent both nights. Barely a peep out of anyone. It was amazing.

TK
TK

 Same with the show at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco Sunday night. Absolutely the quietest crowd I've ever been a part of.  Some singing along, but virtually dead silence otherwise.  Also, the bouncers at GAMH were vigilant about people keeping their cell phones turned off.  I wish they did that at every show. 

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