Jeff rocks the Jefferson
Even in a crowd of so-called hipsters, I entered the floor of the Jefferson Theater Feb. 4 with a sense of smugness unparalleled by any other concertgoer there. I had already seen Jeff Mangum, frontman and writer for Neutral Milk Hotel, more than a year ago, so I knew what to expect and thought it’d be hard to top my previous experience. But it was this very cynicism and sense of ownership of Mangum’s music that kept me from enjoying the show in Charlottesville — at least until I learned to drop my misgivings and enjoy the show just like everyone else.
To be fair, opening act Tall Firs didn’t do a lot to inspire confidence in the coming act. The duo remained seated for the entirety of their laughably subdued set, working their way through an hour’s worth of nearly indistinguishable folk-pop songs. As they meandered around chord progressions on electric guitars and disinterestedly harmonized in falsetto, it wasn’t hard to look around the floor and find others seeming just as apathetic and unmoved as I was.
A bearded Mangum took the stage shortly thereafter, looking considerably more grizzled and unkempt than he did when I last saw him. As the set began, moving from “The King of Carrot Flowers” to “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2” and other tracks from the two Neutral Milk Hotel albums, I couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of pity for Mangum. He talked little between songs and fixed his eyes on a point in the upper balcony, seemingly staring through the audience as he mechanically, though quite accurately, reproduced the same work he had written more than a decade ago. Self-satisfied jokes rang out from the audience, and I couldn’t help but feel Mangum’s intensely personal work wasn’t getting the reception it deserved.
But my pity was misplaced. Though Mangum didn’t seem any less eccentric or shaken as the show went on, even mentioning that one song was written on the “day dad ruined Christmas,” he and the audience became pretty close during the hour and a half-long set. Once he opened up, Mangum joked about the unreliability of his guitars, kindly poked fun at a drunken member of the audience and thanked us for our support multiple times.
In turn, the audience’s wry jokes turned to expressions of sincere gratitude. “You’re the reason I make music!” one audience member yelled. “You called that rough?! That was amazing!” shouted another after Mangum apologized for his voice not being up to its usual level. By the time we reached the encore — a spirited rendition of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” — the audience swayed back and forth with lighters in hand, and Mangum’s deadpan expression and thousand-yard stare were replaced by a pleased, if still reserved, grin.
In retrospect, my preconceptions going into the concert couldn’t have been more wrong. The Jefferson was the perfect venue for such an intimate show, and the typically reserved Mangum, perhaps because he had an entire year of recent touring under his belt, was as comfortable as one could hope.