In indie circles, Jeff Mangum is an enigmatic, tortured genius. The former head honcho of psych/folk outfit Neutral Milk Hotel will perform a solo acoustic show at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on Friday, February 15 as part of the Wordless Music series.
Mangum very rarely consents to interviews, and even tracking anyone down who will tell you that he won’t consent to speak to reporters is difficult. Even a rambling e-mail to announce the dissolution of Neutral Milk Hotel in May 2001 has been the subject of some dispute as to whether it really came from Mangum. So it’s left then to the fans and critics to tell at least some of the story of Jeff Mangum, and why there will be an air of hushed reverence in the hallowed Bardavon hall when he sits in the middle of the stage surrounded by his own acoustic guitars. And of course, there is the music.
Neutral Milk Hotel released just two albums during its brief run; 1996’s On Avery Island was a psychedelic treasure trove with guitars overloaded to the point of static distortion. But the record that still resonates today is In the Aeroplane over the Sea. The 1998 masterpiece is awash in acoustic guitars reminiscent of the style of Richie Havens, tragic heartache and overt references to Anne Frank. But perhaps the most striking element of the album is Mangum’s voice, at once fragile and powerful. It is, in spirit if not sound, like Bob Dylan.
For critics, Mangum’s return to the public eye has become something of a two-year travelogue coasting on good will. A Neutral Milk Hotel box set released two years ago included a ration of unreleased material recorded in the ‘90s, but nothing that would qualify as new. So what might possibly draw anyone to see him perform?
In early October 2011, Mangum played a pair of shows at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park as part of the US iteration of All Tomorrow’s Parties, an artist-curated music and film festival. Mangum, while not exactly mingling, spent the weekend like other artists on the bill: walking along the boardwalk among the fans, most of whom left him alone. He stood three feet from me during Public Enemy’s set, with the same goofy smile that I suspect was on my own face. He was a music fan; and then, later, onstage in a room where an absolute insistence on no photography or video recording was generally respected, with all eyes on him, he performed a set of songs well over a decade old and practically reduced the room to tears. During his first set, Mangum opened with “Oh Comely,” the stark eight-minute centerpiece of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, and I became quite aware of the feeling of my own heartbeat. Seeing Jeff Mangum perform is a unique, life-affirming and beautiful experience, and how many things can you truly say that about?
Jeff Mangum, Music Tapes & Tall Firs, Friday, February 15, 8 p.m., $37, $1 benefiting Children of the Blue Sky, Bardavon 1869 Opera House, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; www.bardavon.org, www.wordlessmusic.org.