Jeff Mangum – Chapel Hill, NC – 1/30/2012

Feb 1, 2012 by


On January 30th, 2012 Matt, Wes Money, his lovely wife, and I went to Chapel Hill, NC to see Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, acoustically perform songs from his discography. 

The set list was:

Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Little Birds
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3
April 8th
Oh Comely
Two-Headed Boy/Fool
Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Our tickets were for 8pm and made no mention of an opening band.  Knowing Jeff’s history, and that the venue was a seated concert hall, we thought this meant a quiet early evening of Jeff and his guitars.  We’d start at 8, leave by 10, and be home (or at the bar) by 11:30.  We were pleasantly surprised to see not only guitars (even electric ones!), but a collection of instruments as well (various horns, drum pieces and an accordion).  We were less pleasantly surprised to find that those instruments belonged to the opening band, not Jeff Mangum.

The opening band was Scott Spillane, member of the band The Gerbils as well as a previous member of Neutral Milk Hotel, Laura Carter and Andrew Rieger of Elf Power.  All three members have played with Mangum in the past and are part of the Elephant 6 collective.  We knew none of that last night (although Scott Spillane did look familiar to the group, however his once epically weird beard is now epically huge and grey, more on the beard in a minute).  All we knew last night was that these were the three people in the way of seeing Jeff Mangum. 


They seemed like two completely different bands, depending on whether Scott or Andrew sang, and it turns out, they were!  Laura filled the void between the two disparate guitars with a collection of horns, accordion and some bottle slide guitar playing.  She also played the best drum set I’ve ever seen in my life.  A bongo drum and tambourine sitting atop bar stools.  I can’t believe I’ve been using pots and pans all these years when a great sounding drum set was that easy to make.  We were all of the opinion that Laura looked to be enjoying herself the most and was really the best addition to the night.

Their set was uneven, weird, sometimes inspiring, but ultimately they played for an hour when 20 minutes would have done.  We were decidedly antsy, not just for Mangum to come on, but also for a beer and something to eat, as we had rushed to get to the show not knowing we could have shown up at 9:45, after swilling a few beers and eating a few slices of pizza.  As with almost any show on a college campus I’ve ever been to, the kids working the show were helpful, if a little clueless when it came to seating, but absolute Nazis when it comes to the “no  readmission” policy.

It’s a seated venue.  If I gave my ticket to someone, it’s still one seat being occupied.  Who really trades out tickets anyway?  That means two of us only see part of the show.  I’ve got to think that of all the problems you can have with a show, trading tickets happens less than 1% of the time.  I’m sure there is some other reason for doing it, but I bet whatever that reason is, it too is a small percentage issue.  They wouldn’t even let anyone step out front, in plain view of the 10 kids in charge of the area, to take a smoke, because then you’d be leaving the venue, and if you leave the venue you couldn’t possibly be allowed back.  Maybe it has something to do with terrorists and how they hate our freedom.

Once Gerbil Power left the stage, we had about a 20 minute wait for Mangum’s acoustic guitars, water, and chair to be brought out on stage.  Mangum appeared to a fairly thunderous applause, dressed in some ancient thrift wear, and gave a halfhearted wave to the crowd.  We’d been anticipating Mangum’s stage presence to be as reclusive as his real life presence has been over the last 14 years, and I have to admit, that colored my first impression of him.  Mangum has always been the “Eliot Smith that lived” to me, and on this night, he even looked a bit like him, so all my preconceived notions were being met.

Then he sat down to play.

He picked up a guitar with no words or fanfare and launched right into Two Headed Boy part 2, his voice was clear, strong, and absolutely rang the bells.  I remember reading a description of Greg Ginn; if you’d never known him as a guitar player, you’d think of him as a rather meek fellow.  Hearing that he played punk rock you couldn’t help but laugh, but when he got a guitar in his hands, he turned into a frothing monster.  I wouldn’t say that Mangum frothed, but he was definitely a demon possessed with the guitar in his hands.  His long lanky arms wrapped effortlessly around his guitars as he played his songs at break neck speed.  There were moments when his strumming hand was just a blur.  His voice matched that level of intensity and then outpaced it.  He showed incredible sustain at times, holding notes for long periods as his hands dropped from his guitar and rubbed his knees absentmindedly as they suddenly became second stage to the main act.

Some highlights from the performance include King of Carrots part 2&3, a song that didn’t seem like it would translate well to acoustic, and absolutely did.  Again, it was his voice, and the Memorial Hall acoustics, that really carried this song and made it something special.  Ghost, a favorite of Matt’s, was another song that sounded great acoustically.


Holland,1945 a personal favorite of mine, was beautiful as always, and was the second song he performed.  This was where we got a glimpse of what was to come from Mangum to us.  “If you sing along at home, you should sing along here as well” and then he launched into the song that can stand alone as pure poetry, I get goosebumps every time I hear it. 

Mangum’s banter increased throughout the night, breaking between most songs to sip water, tune a stray string, and chat with the crowd.  Overall the audience was enthusiastic and respectful, sometimes too respectful; needing to be goaded into singing along, something Mangum clearly wanted us to do.    I really liked this; as I said earlier, I was expecting a more reclusive show.  Instead, I got the feeling that he was making peace with this period in his life, and that he was inviting us to join along.   He was confident and friendly, full of stage presence while comfortably sitting in his chair.

Mangum said he was enjoying getting back to playing the songs the way he had written them;  just him, his guitar and a little room.  The venues he’s selected for this mini tour reflect that:  seated only, quiet venues that allow him to play, and the audience to listen.  I think these venues also work against him a bit as Memorial Hall did not inspire us to join in and make it as raucous a night as it could have been. 

Throughout the first half of his set, he played alone in his chair, with two microphones standing off to the side, just waiting for someone to join in.  Sure enough, Laura Carter and Scott Spillane showed up at various times to add in little bits of horn accentuation.  Sometimes it was Laura, sometimes it was Scott, and sometimes it was both.  This played out best in Oh Comely as Scott, Laura, Andrew and three others joined Mangum for the outro – playing a drum, horns, and the accordion.  The Circus element feel that was part of the Neutral Milk shows was there, if for just a moment.  Someone in our group said the only way it could have been any better was if the chick playing the drum was a midget.  I don’t think she was wrong.

Mangum finished his set with Two Headed Boy >>>The Fool, again with accents of horn joining in at the appropriate times.   Two Headed Boy is one of my favorites, and this was as fierce a version as I’ve ever heard.  After a few minutes of cheering, he came back for the obligatory encore.  Song against Sex was the “Freebird” of the night, being yelled out at every opportunity.  I’m not even sure he actually wanted to play it, but showing his love for the crowd, he did. 

As far as encores go it was short, but it was also two of the strongest songs of the night.  After an hour and a half of belting it out, Mangum’s voice was still going strong.  Jeff invited everyone up front and, more than once, told the audience as they sang out in chorus, “You all sound beautiful, you really do”.     A good bit of the crowd made it to the stage and another good amount were turned back as the campus Nazis struck again.  Clearly this reclusive folkie was intent on starting a full on riot.

Mangum left the stage, with a wave, to sustained applause as Matt, our friends, and I headed for the door.  He seemed to appreciate the audience and their enthusiasm and genuinely looked like he enjoyed playing there.

After we’d managed to extricate ourselves from the Hall of No Return, we took a little stroll downtown, past the “Occupy Chapel Hill” encampment and managed to grab a couple of slices of pizza and a Fat Tire, abating our hunger and restoring our sense of justice in the world.  All in all, it was a pretty great night.

Side Notes:

Mangum played Little Birds a single that was released with the reissue of Aeroplane.  It really brings into sharp relief the southern Gothic imagery prevalent in Mangum’s work.  Such a creepy song…

Did you know the burning hell it took your baby brother?
Did you see how far he fell and how he made us suffer?
Another boy in town at night he took him for his lover
And deep in sin they held each other
So I took a hammer and nearly beat his little brains in
Knowing God in heaven could have, never could forgive him
So I took a hammer and I nearly beat his brains in

Going into the show, we expected a lot of folks our age, but we were definitely in the minority.  As I’ve reached 40 my ability to judge the age of anyone between 15 and 25 is murky at best.   If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the median age of the crowd was 14.  Saner folks in our group thought 23.  To get an idea of what the kids of today are up to, we’ve included this video:

Matt is pretty sure the girl on the left was in front of him, the girl on the right was off to my left, and the dude on guitar was everywhere.   It’s been roughly 20 years since I’ve seen that much flannel in one room, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many kooky hats, crazy glasses and skinny jeans.  Hipsters were fully united in support of Sir Mangum.


I’ve read some reviews of previous shows that disliked the sing a long aspect, one even going so far as to say it felt like an oldies concert.  I couldn’t disagree more.   The fear of any sing-a-long at a show is that you’re going to hear the audience and not the guy you paid to see.  That’s just not the case here.  These shows are small, and his voice is powerful.  Even at a full roar, we were just backup singers, never upstaging or overpowering the main attraction.  Our show had no alcohol, so maybe it would be different if we were all drunk, but even then I’m pretty sure Jeff’s voice would have won out.

On Scott Spillane’s Beard

Alan: (leaning in to speak over the ruckus to Matt) Do you think that’s a fake beard?

Matt:  I was just wondering that…

Alan:  It’s GOT to be a fake beard, look at that thing

Matt:  Yeah, look at the back of his head, there’s like a strap or something

Alan:  No way that’s real.  I wonder if he’s wearing padding, too.  Maybe it’s Jeff Mangum in disguise?  I don’t know, but that beard is one big fake beard.

Matt: Totally Fake


Elephant 6 Collective

Fun reading when you have the time


Occupy Chapel Hill

There looked to be a group of about 5 people occupying Chapel Hill.  Matt and I chatted about it for a few minutes and figured this was one of those areas where the 1% is the 99%, so 5 occupiers seemed about right.  It also looked really boring.  It’s one of the aspects of occupation and protest that no one tells you about; it’s crazy boring to sit in the same spot all day long surrounded by people who don’t care.  I hope their tents were warm.


Poison Clan

This is totally off subject, but while listening to Sirius’s old school rap station, “backspin”, we heard from an early 90s rap group, Poison Clan, that we had never heard of.  My first response was, “Say what you want about how Rap objectifies women, but by this standard, today’s rap is positively feminist”.  Matt’s was, “I don’t know how I’ve never heard of these guys.  This would have been right in my wheel house.”  This was right about the point where the lyric, “Smack it so it jiggles” came up, which prompted Matt to say, “What I’m saying is, it doesn’t suck and I like it”.  The sound was Two Live Crew area Miami rap, which led us down all kinds of tangents – how people find our website by searching for Luther Campbell, 2 Live Crew’s reunion tour, the dirty south, etc etc. 

For more information on Poison Clan, click their wiki below


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