I may have mentioned before that I was a very late bloomer to the scope of the music scene. At 32 years old, you’d think that Neutral Milk Hotel would’ve had a profound effect on my post-adolescence, however around the time In The Aeroplane Over The Sea came out, I was still mired mostly in a world on Nu-Metal. I was driving around in my increasingly rusty 1984 Honda Prelude with only one working door and listening mainly to Staind and Godsmack and others, with a narrow view as to what existed outside of Lazer 103.3. I blame the crowd I ran with as much as anything, since that seemed to be the bulk of what my group of friends listened to. Despite that, there was always an undercurrent of indie and alternative rock that sat below the Korns and Limp Bizkitz of the world, as I was also really into R.E.M. and Weezer, to name two. I liked punk rock, like Rancid and Bad Religion, a great deal and was starting to appreciate hip-hop a little more. Once I stopped being so mad at the world and grew up a little more, I grew out of the heavy, radio friendly hard rock blanket I had encased myself in and instead started to appreciate the more underlying areas of the music scene and less of what was easy to access and easy to digest.
One night, after I had dipped my toe into the water of indie rock, my brother-in-law and I were drinking and doing a bit of a music exchange when he put on Aeroplane. He was most excited about “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2-3”, and I thought it was a cool enough song that I wanted to hear the rest. I got a copy and played the whole album about eight or nine times. Then eight or nine times more. Then two or three dozen after that. While I can’t say that it was the album that opened my mind to the wonders of indie rock and multi-instrumental music, and while I can’t say it was the album that blew the doors open on my new found love affair with the artform, it is one of a handful of albums that I have taken in from my now half decade music binge that has really stuck with me. An album I put on regardless of mood or situation. I would dare say it is my default setting when it comes to just throwing on an album and listening to it. It is, quite possibly, my favorite album of all time. I am listening to it as I type this sentence, in fact.
The album has had a pretty big effect on my family as well. When my daughter was an infant, I would rock her to sleep by singing whatever song I could think of that I was pretty sure I knew all the words. She got a lot of When In Rome’s “The Promise” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, but the song that always worked was “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. It seemed to calm the nerves of a colicky infant, and even now at almost three, I still use that song to sing her to sleep. Much like a back rub worked when I was a child (and still does to this day), Jeff Mangum soothes the savage toddler. It has had such an effect on our family that my wife made me this for my birthday:
That is a line from the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. Each letter is cut from a fingerpainting our daughter made. So while I may be a little late to the party, Jeff Mangum’s work is held in very high regard around the Murphy house.
That was why I was so excited when the Max Ames Fest announced Mangum was performing as part of the festival. I knew that not only was it a rare chance to see him, but that it would be a beautiful and emotional night. And on that night, I could’ve used a little beauty. Lately, I have been going through a lot of, I dunno, internal strife, I guess. Life has been a bit of a struggle lately; I mean I guess it always sort of is, right? Just, as of late, I haven’t been able to figure out how I’m going to support my family and my current *cough* career just ain’t cutting it. Top it off with a bit of a stressful move and a few other things that I can’t really get into here, my current mental state hasn’t been great (and in fact, two weeks later, I wouldn’t say it is improving, which is a huge reason why this took so long to publish, but I digress). So with what his music means to me and what the outside stimuli was doing to my brain, I knew that a show as powerful as Jeff Mangum was going to pretty much put me through an emotional wringer. In that case it didn’t disappoint. I wasn’t prepared for just how much I’d experience in one night.
(Author’s note: They requested no pictures at the show, so I have included some helpful drawings to move the story along.)
I was overcoming a long day at work and my wife was fighting a cold, so we weren’t in the best of moods to begin with. Now having said that, maybe I am coming to a point where i am too old to go to concerts. I just am. I am too old to fight crowds, I am too old to drink a ton and try and drag my ass out of bed the next day. I am just old. So when we got into the Ames City Auditorium, I was pumped to see seats. We were early enough that we were able to get to the front row. The openers were local favorites The Poison Control Center:
PCC are a bit wild. They are known for their balls-out performance style complete with head stands and splits. Their songs are quick garage rock with some punk leanings. It’s pop, it’s rock. It is awesome. They are super high energy and on a night where the get to open for one of their heroes, they were super jacked up. While I don’t think they were similar to what the rest of the show would bring, to see them playing a show with an idol made me pretty happy and overrode the musical differences.
A couple of songs in, I looked over and saw two kids standing in the aisle, dancing. They weren’t in anyone’s way, they were just standing and having fun. I even remarked to my wife how I thought it was cool they were up dancing. Then Fleming decide to call them out for being awesome, which lead to a flood of high school/college aged kids flooding to the front. Directly in front of where we were sitting.
I was already a bit disgruntled before I even walked in the door, so these whippersnappers in my way added to my grief. I declared a cold war on these kids who were simply looking to have a good time. I stayed in my seat despite it being a less than ideal situation. Finally, my wife and I had enough and we moved about ten rows back. We figured we’d let the kids stand and we would be far enough back to be old and sit, while also still enjoying the show. It was an unfortunate compromise, but one that I made. It was a mistake as it turned out.
In between the first and second bands, the promoters of the show, Nate Logsdon and Chris Lyng, came out and asked the standing people to please sit. So, they all sat. Had we simply waited out the kids, we would’ve had our front row seats. To top it off, some hipster chick with a chip on her shoulder came back and tried to make my wife and I move because we were in “her seats”. She even had her jacket there to save them, she said rather snottily. She pointed to a white, probably faux-vintage, but maybe actual vintage jacket draped over the backrest of a chair to my right. I rightly pointed out we didn’t sit on the seat with a jacket, just the two next to it. She found that unacceptable, because where were her friends going to sit?
I told her she could have the seat with the jacket on it, but we weren’t moving and she could kindly go fuck herself. Okay, I didn’t tell her to go fuck herself, but I did say that we weren’t moving. I felt I was in the right. Plus, I was tired and didn’t feel like moving again, and she just got up and stood in a bunch of people’s way, so maybe she could go elsewhere. Like I said, I was not in the greatest of spirits. She sat in the seat with her jacket and her friends kind of filled in the single seats sprinkled around us.
I had the distinct feeling that that sort of dispute was happening across the theater. There was a tension in the air from then on as pretty much everyone sat and watched Music Tapes perform. The audience only really reacted when each song was over, but no one really moved during the actual performance, except to shift uncomfortably in their seat. Music Tapes is also a bit of an acquired taste that many were refusing to acquire. Julian Koster is an oddly charismatic front man, with a flair for ludicrous stories in place of actual banter, and their sound is super unique. However, the crowd just wasn’t having it. Also, following the popular and high energy PCC was maybe not the best move, either.
More importantly for this story, I just wasn’t having it. Heck, I may even be projecting my shitty attitude on the rest of the crowd and, in reality, they were all enjoying themselves, but it didn’t seem like it and it seemed like Koster could feel it too. Towards the end of their performance, he even remarked that “he didn’t mind if we stood, and that Jeff probably won’t mind, either.” He was quirky and he was polite and they were gifted and talented and artistic and I hated them. Despite playing the singing saw on Aeroplane I was in no mood to give the performance the respect it deserved.
Further I was distracted by my anger with hipster chick over the seating arrangements.
It really is a shame that I refused to give the music the respect it deserved. Having gone back and listened, Music Tapes are an interesting and, more importantly, wholly unique group of artists with a sincere, if a bit sleepy sound. They reminded me a little bit of a less epic and less gibberish Sigur Ros. I actually liked their music a lot on second listen, but that night, man, I don’t know if I had ever disliked a band more. This is completely my fault and I accept the consequences of my childish behavior.
Finally, after what was very likely a short and inoffensive break, but what felt interminable due to the somewhat hostile surroundings (that I was probably creating), Jeff Mangum appeared. Mangum had a bare bones approach to the show. He appeared on the stage with just his cache of guitars and a chair, looking every bit like a man who spent the better part of the last decade as a recluse in the woods. His long hair poured out from under a dirty baseball cap and his beard was unruly and disheveled. He wore a flannel shirt and wrinkled pants. However, there was no decline in his ability.
He opened with “Oh, Comely” the 8-plus minute long opus from Aeroplane. The crowd was still a little bit on edge, and I think he could feel it. After his heart wrenching performance of the song got few sing-a-longs and polite applause at the end, Mangum uttered simply, “You all can get closer, I don’t mind.” With that simple statement, the flood gates opened. Nearly no one remained seated and all poured towards the front of the stage. He followed that bit of tension relief with “King of Carrot Flowers”, all three parts. People sang and swayed and hugged, and any remaining tensions seemed to vanish. The room now filled with love and respect as well Mangum’s signature voice. A gorgeous and striking vocal performance that sounded every bit as good as it does recorded.
While it was purely a solo show (Koster did return to play the saw on a couple of songs, including “Aeroplane” which was as close to a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion as I think we’re ever going to see) the songs rarely missed the backing band as Mangum’s voice is so strong on its own that it carried the show without the additional instruments.
The only song I could say that missed the band was “Holland, 1945”. The hurricane of horns and distortion really helps with the stark subject matter. My wife actually has a hard time listening to the song normally, especially when it gets to the “And here’s where you mother sleeps and here is the room where your brothers were born” part. On his own, those lyrics hit even harder. So maybe “missed” isn’t the right word, but it certainly changed the song, maybe for the better and maybe not.
Coming in there were four songs that I assumed would make me cry: “Oh, Comely”, “Two Headed Boy” “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. For “Oh, Comely” I was still a little bit angry, so the song didn’t quite have the effect it would’ve. However, he followed the emotional performance of “Holland” with “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2” and I pretty much lost it. Tears poured, but I was able to control the sobbing, so it wasn’t completely embarrassing. In fact, I kind of cried for the rest of the show. Even when he played the charming and somewhat upbeat “Ghost”, I still had a little bit of a tear.
When he got to “Aeroplane” to close the pre-encore portion, (and we all knew it was coming when Koster and his saw re-appeared) I wasn’t crying from sadness. It was just an overwhelming experience. All the strife and struggle that I had been going through had melted away. The opening guitar chords hit for “Aeroplane” and I just smiled. I smiled thinking of my goofy kid and not how I had to buy her new winter clothes. I smiled thinking of our new house and the new experiences we’d have there and not how I was going to afford it. And I smiled sitting next to my beautiful wife, my best friend and my partner and stopped thinking about things that change my attitude and make me a burden to be around. I smiled and I cried and the saw sang and I sang and my wife sang and the crowd sang and Jeff Mangum sang and he played guitar and it was all perfect.
Mangum came out for a single song encore, “Two Headed Boy”, but by that point I was pretty much spent. All told, he played for around 90 minutes. He hit every track off Aeroplane except “Communist Daughter” and the two instrumental tracks “The Penny Arcade in California” and “The Fool”. He also played several songs off of On Avery Island as well as a few other tracks. We sang along to “Two Headed Boy” with the crowd staying with him as well as they could, and then we left. All the hostility was gone, all the issues were gone, all the turmoil was gone. Sure, it didn’t last forever, but for a few glorious moments, everything was right in the world. And really, isn’t that what we’re looking for when we go to concerts?