Surprises are nice, especially in the internet age, with its spoilers and fevered reportage and races to be first. So in anticipation of something memorable, and hopefully personal, it’s a relief to turn off your phone and rely on the Instagram that is your brain. Such has been the thinking of Jeff Mangum and his coterie: no video, no photography. When the extremely private singer-songwriter made his first billed concert appearance in years in May 2010, at a benefit concert for stroke-stricken New Zealand punk rocker Chris Knox, cameras were forbidden—though a few grainy videos showed up online. Since then Mangum has played a handful of shows: from a Bushwick loft to Zuccotti Park and large theaters like BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, where on Friday, January 20, he played the middle show of a three-night run with the Music Tapes, a twee-folk combo led by Julian Koster, formerly of Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel. In March, Mangum is curating the UK edition of the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival. For the next few months he’ll be touring the country, and he’s just released a limited edition vinyl box set that collects a lot of material that’s long been out of print.
An air of nervous anticipation set in at BAM not long before the lights went down. Now, Mangum is far from the Maharishi, but plenty of fans had traveled from afar to “touch the hem of his garment,” to echo Shelley Duvall’s rock journalist in Annie Hall. Even Stephen Colbert was reportedly in attendance, having left his well-publicized “campaign” in South Carolina on the day of the Republican presidential primary.
Mangum appeared gracious and grateful as he walked onstage, dressed in a green work shirt and workman’s cap covering chin-length hair. He later spoke of some queasiness, but “that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be here,” he said, shyly. I wondered how it felt for him to leave behind the coffeehouses and mid-sized rock venues of his band’s heyday, and a decade later perform in a space like the Beaux Arts Gilman, which so acutely accentuates every last warble. Mangum opened with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” a quiet and romantic song about grasping for personal connection and keeping the past present. It closes In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, capped by Mangum unplugging his guitar and walking away. Here, it’s a jarring hello, but a kind one, which seems to say, “Ahem, where were we?”
It’s strange, he remarked, “Putting little messages in a bottle and ten years later…” you get an audience like this one. Among his most angst-ridden, “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” from 1996’s On Avery Island, has an emotional release that’s nailed to the wall by his surrealist imagery: “Our love bleeds through.” Catharsis—whether through bleeding, or fumbling bodies, or falling or seeking escape—is a prominent theme in his songwriting. Colored by Koster’s singing saw, “Engine,” with its talking tigers on cafeteria trays imagery, is comforting like only a children’s song can be, whatever your age.
He was playful throughout, responding to a chorus of well-wishes and requests. At one point someone yelled, “Play whatever you want,” to applause. (As a wise man once said, a band is not a jukebox.) As he was drawing on a relatively small repertoire (two albums and a handful of singles), it’s doubtful anyone went home disappointed. Instead, there were treats like the howling tip of “Oh Comely,” the long, simply strummed centerpiece of Aeroplane, which closes with Salvation Army brass. The song’s high notes might’ve found their way into BAM’s cinema, next door. And there are those lines like “I will take you and leave you alone,” from “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” which remind the listener what a privilege it is to remain in the moment. For an encore, the audience spilled into the aisles during the rollicking “Song Against Sex.” Surprisingly shy about singing along, even when prodded by Mangum, the crowd happily obliged for “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” a curio that’s transcended these past dozen years and become a signature. There were handshakes and waves and, again, a goodbye. As Mangum sings in “Oh Comely,” “I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.” In the end, all we have are our memories.