[Boomslang] Jeff Mangum & the Music Tapes @ the Kentucky Theater 9.20.12
September 21st, 2012 by Matt
The Music Tapes
The Music Tapes were better than I remember Julian’s material being during the E6 Holiday Surprise Tour that last brought him and Jeff to Lexington. They had the giant 7-foot metronome on stage that seemed like it got a bit of an upgrade since it was now able to play beats while it kept time. Seeing him with a full band of musicians was great. My only problem with this lineup is that they all had the same problem Julian occasionally has: they’re very talented musicians who pretty much just fade into the background. But the Music Tapes will never be an overly energetic group, so it seems just a bit unfair of me to expect that.
If a lack of stage presence is the group’s weak spot, their strong one is Julian himself. His voice, while sure to suffer from being compared to Mangum’s night after night, is really great live. His vocals are easily the most dramatic and compelling part of the show. And though he’s often a bit timid on stage, he uses that to great comedic effect. He told us one (possibly made-up) story about a Romanian circus act that was full of all sorts of goofy moments that probably won over a lot of the crowd.
At the end there was a moment of conflicting emotions. Julian dedicated a song to the Olivia Tremor Control’s Bill Doss who recently passed away. During that moment of reverence and introspection a guy got out of his set, wobbled over to the aisle and hit someone in the head. I don’t know why that happened, but I was pretty disappointed in Lexington when it did. Really? A fight started at a Jeff Mangum show? Sort your emotions out before going to a show and ruining it for hundreds of people.
For years I was happy being one of the few people to have seen Jeff Mangum perform a song during his long hiatus. Jeff played “Engine” at the end of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour in Lexington in October 2008. That was an unexpected treat and I considered myself very lucky to have been there. Now it’s almost four years later and I’m writing about my second Jeff Mangum concert of the year.
There are two ways to think or write about a Jeff Mangum show: as a straight-forward appraisal of how the show was, (ie what would a random guy off the street think?) or taking into consideration the mythology and history of this critically acclaimed and nearly worshipped musician. The problem with trying to cut out the history of Neutral Milk Hotel and Jeff Mangum is that almost no one experiences his show that way. It’s hard to imagine anyone being unfamiliar with Jeff’s band — and by extension having at least a little knowledge of his lengthy hiatus — and winding up at that show.
The first thing I noticed at both this Lexington show and his spring one in Athens, GA is that Jeff wanted to be on stage. With almost a decade of rumors flying about his reclusive habits and speculation about why he refused to perform live, I can’t overstate how reassuring it was for me to know instantly this wasn’t some sad tour that Jeff regretted night after night. He smiled through it all, cracked jokes and thanked us numerous times. And man, does he ever throw himself into the performance. As a solo act, Jeff had to vocalize most of the iconic trumpet parts from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (or coerce the audience to do it, which they happily and skillfully did). But “had to” is wrong. He could’ve just omitted that part and no one would have cared. But he was giving us the best show he could — and it was a damn good one.
When Julian came out to play the singing saw on “Engine” about a quarter of the crowd got out of their seats and ran to the front of the theater. They weren’t going to dance or act wild; they just wanted to be closer to something most of them probably never thought they’d see. Julian left after that, but the crowd stayed pushed up to the front and the rest of us remained standing. We got the rarities “Baby for Pree” and “Ferris Wheel on Fire” before Julian came back to close the show by accompanying Jeff on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It was a big, beautiful song that came from two big, beautiful souls and the hundreds in the audience who joined them in singing it.