Last Night: Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center

The notoriously press-shy Jeff Mangum (left, in an old Neutral Milk Hotel photo) does not approve photography at his shows. Imagine grayer hair and a beard.
The notoriously press-shy Jeff Mangum (left, in an old Neutral Milk Hotel photo) does not approve photography at his shows. Imagine grayer hair and a beard.

Jeff Mangum, Tall Firs Cullen Theater, Wortham Center January 21, 2013

The level of nervous anticipation throughout Wortham Center beforehand ran high, while in the lobby countless hushed conversations between excited faces were underway. Jeff Mangum had finally come to Houston, and to say that the crowd was looking forward to the performance would be a massive understatement.

While I do enjoy the work of Mangum's seminal indie group Neutral Milk Hotel, I've never been the rabid super-fan that seemed to form the bulk of the attending audience. The fact is I just came late to the party, never having spent nights in my bedroom with Mangum's records piping through my headphones.

It didn't seem to matter much, however. The anxious eagerness that I felt seemed to be echoed around the room, from the local musicians who hold Mangum in high esteem to my friend who partied with the Elephant Six collective "on a compound outside of Athens (Georgia)" years ago.

One thing no one seemed prepared for was the opening act, Tall Firs. When the house lights dimmed and the two gentlemen walked onstage to a minimal setup, the crowd hushed. They politely plugged two guitars into a single Fender amplifier and proceeded to meander through a set of electric but hardly electrifying folk songs. Trading lead-vocal duties on each song, the duo's voices benevolently gave way to the clean guitar tones.

The first pair of songs seemed cinematic, one destined for a movie set in a Pacific Northwest forest, the second bound to reverberate through a Southwestern desert canyon. From there, however, little more held my interest. As my companion mentioned, "This is like when the wrong dude picks up the guitar at the party." The chorus from "Waiting On a Friend" echoed what seemed to be the growing sentiment in the room:

"Let's cash it out while we still can. Why drag it on until the bitter end?...Why should we waste our time waiting on all our friends?"

If the goal was to set the bar as low as possible before Mangum's set, Tall Firs did a splendid job.

The excitement returned to the room as everyone filed back inside following intermission. Mangum walked onstage, tall and thin, sporting long gray locks and a sizable beard. For a moment it seemed as if he had just emerged from a cabin, as if someone politely asked him to play a show and he had kindly agreed. With a wave and a smile, he settled into the lone chair and launched into "Oh Comely."

When the song finished, the audience erupted with applause. Mangum gave a little nod of appreciation, saying, "Please sing with me," before beginning the familiar strum of "King of Carrot Flowers" to another roar of the crowd.

The communal aspect of the show continued over the course of his hour-long set, with the audience at times clapping and singing harmonies, and during breaks Mangum prodding them several times with, "You guys gonna sing with me or what?"

The theater helped expand this experience; in the same way a crowd watching a blockbuster movie shares moods, I felt a part of the collective conscious. A thousand pairs of eyes and ears absorbed songs from one of indie music's most revered writers, with the breadth of the theater spilling the mutual experience throughout the room in a way that couldn't occur in a smaller rock club.


Armed with a selection of four acoustic guitars, a giant water bottle and some throat spray, Mangum alone tackled the Neutral Milk Hotel catalog to much approval. Despite the depth of sounds found in the songs -- accordion, drums, horns, fuzzy guitars, bagpipes, the list goes on and on -- the earnest acoustic set was more than full.

"You were hearing them all in your head," my friend remarked of the extra instruments after the show, and I realized he was right. My mind had unconsciously filled in all the gaps.

After playing "Two Headed Boy, Part 1," Mangum slipped in a cover of Roky Erickson's "I Love the Living You," a relatively unknown gem from the 1999 album Never Say Goodbye.

"I never thought so many people would be listening," he remarked afterward, while thanking everyone for coming to the show and participating. At the conclusion of each number the crowd would swell with applause and cheers, and Mangum himself seemed genuinely astonished at the adoration.

When he wrapped up his set with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's "Ghost" and politely bowed, the crowd erupted into a true standing ovation, the likes of which is rarely seen here in Houston. The cheers extended for several minutes before he returned to perform "Two Headed Boy, Part 2" for the rapt audience.

Was it a transcendent experience? Judging from the beaming faces and the excitement afterward, for many in the room it certainly was. It took our "honorary member of Elephant Six" friend a good while to return to earth afterward.

"Up until just before he took the stage, I still wasn't certain I'd ever get to see [Mangum] perform in my life," he exclaimed. The sentiment and ensuing thrill appeared to carry throughout the crowd, spilling into the downtown streets and into countless post-concert conversations over drinks at nearby bars.


Oh Comely King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 1-3 Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone Engine Two Headed Boy, Part 1 I Love The Living You (Roky Erickson cover) Song Against Sex In The Aeroplane Over The Sea Naomi Ghost


Two Headed Boy, Part 2

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