Jeff Mangum at the Athenaeum Theatre | Concert review
The Athenaeum was well decorated with Fiddler on the Roof posters and the like, with kind, elderly ushers making our stay just about as hospitable as could be. Nerves and reverence were the most immediate feelings among us. The illustrious theater felt something like the Christmas Eve service in my hometown, hosting a sea of people who probably hadn’t sat in such a space in some time, and were worried that the night might not mean as much as it was supposed to.
Scott Spillane, Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter opened. We felt anticipation, unabashedly, but it was a quiet, anxious joy to see pop music treated with such patient delicacy. The stage was about as sparse as it gets, befitting the choice of venue: little amps, a bongo/tambourine/floor tom drum kit, and a toy sax with a sound sadly pretty enough to make the last Destroyer record sound like a death march. The snow-bearded Spillane is even more of a Father Christmas than he was a few years ago at Bottom Lounge, leading us into the Garden with bow & geet. His closer, a cover of Bob Shane’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” rattled my roots like a musical number in a Lynch film.
When the red curtains parted, corpses around me were reanimated and Mangum walked on stage with post-coital casualness. We were in the palm of his hand, and despite Jeff’s infamous reclusion, I think we were more uncomfortable than him last night. Opening with “Two Headed Boy, pt. 2,” we were all rendered silent, flushed with the realization that this music is somehow still alive.
“If you sing along at home, there’s no reason not to sing along here,” said Mangum after the first tune. “And you guys can yell at me, too; you don’t have to be so nice.” That invitation turned each guitar change into a Q & A, revealing Mangum to be more human and less of an agoraphobic hermit than I’d ever imagined.
“Where have you been?” asked one woman in the audience. “I’ve been with the love of my life,” he said. The whole theater applauded: he’s human after all. “When’s your next album? Or any new material?” asked a brave soul. “No,” said Jeff. More applause. “Who would win in a fight, Batman or Spider-Man?” asked my dingus friend Jon. “Man, I have no idea,” said Jeff.
Some of us sang along. I know I did. But the audience was only audible during “Two Headed Boy.” That chorus made sense of a nationwide tour sold out in minutes. For many of us, this was our “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” He’s been that dead to the world since my generation (‘90s babies) got into that album, unreachable as Elliott Smith, and with a reappearance less likely than Fugazi, he’s telling us to sing along and yell at him. I played it cool like a lot of us did, but no one was ready for such informality.
Mangum’s public return, impossibility of new material notwithstanding, is profound and separate from our seeming pandemic of ‘90s reformation mania. There is an untouchable point of nostalgia to Jeff’s music that really freaks us out, because it is sad without being self-loathing. It is desperate without begging for sympathy. In other words, it doesn’t pine for your attention; you have to give yourself to the music, and not vice versa. With the decidedly more resonant Aeroplane in particular, Mangum crafted a shrine to the eternally tearworthy. The album itself is a love letter—to Anne Frank’s ghost, to the imagination, and to the possibility of a perfect record.
“Hey Jeff, how do you feel about reincarnation?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m doing it right now.”
Two-Headed Boy, pt. 2
Song Against Sex
King of Carrot Flowers, pts. 1, 2 & 3
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea