Friday, February 23 , 2018, 1:34 am | Fair 49º

 
 
 
 

Jeff Moehlis: Jeff Mangum Brings Hipster Heaven to Santa Barbara

An awe-inspiring performance of songs off 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' and more

As the singer, songwriter and main force behind the band Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum has achieved cult hero status among his ever-growing fan base, which ranges from his core hipster audience to new college students who first hear his music from their dorm roommate, to music nuts like me who are from his generation.

This reverence for Mangum comes primarily from the 1998 Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which is regularly hailed as one of the best albums of the 1990s — and many say of all time — thanks to its highly evocative lyrics (inspired in part by the story of Anne Frank), impassioned singing, quirky instrumentation and fuzzy production.

Of course, much of the fascination with Mangum comes from his Syd Barrett-like withdrawal from the music world, which began after a short tour in support of the Aeroplane album. Not much was heard from him, literally, for about a decade.

But unlike Barrett, Mangum got back into the game. It started slowly in the late 2000s with him playing a few songs in the backing band for his old friends, and took off with his 2011 shows on the East Coast that drew excited fans from far and wide. The big plunge was him performing at Coachella in 2012, and around that time I caught him in Los Angeles and was completely blown away.

On Monday night, he played a similarly astounding concert at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, something that a few years ago was virtually inconceivable. Mangum, who is now sporting a bushy beard, seemed more relaxed with being onstage than when I saw him before.

As for the L.A. concert, this was an all-acoustic show, with Mangum’s furious guitar strumming and intense singing nicely capturing the spirit of the beloved album versions of the songs even without the drums, horns and overdriven guitars. It’s amazing that one guy sitting on a chair with a microphone, a guitar and a few bottles of water can be so awe-inspiring.

He started off with “Holland, 1945,” probably my favorite of his songs, and went on to deliver incredible versions of most of the songs off the Aeroplane album. Every song was stunning, but particular mention must be made of “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 1-3,” to which the crowd enthusiastically sang along. This hit a high when it came to the lyrics “I love you Jesus Christ,” which probably struck each person in the audience differently but led to a collective rapture.

Another highlight was the title track to the Aeroplane album, played as an encore with hipsters politely rushing the stage and the whole house singing along.

Mangum also played a nice sampling of songs off the first Neutral Milk Hotel album On Avery Island. On “Naomi,” he was accompanied by cellist Heather McIntosh.

The audience’s response during the songs alternated between silent awe and full-on singing along, followed by thunderous applause and various awkward shout-outs between songs attempting to convey heartfelt appreciation for Mangum. One that stood out was an audience member calling out, “I’d let you save me in a time machine any day of the week,” a humorous and obscure reference to the lyrics in the song “Oh Comely,” which caused Mangum to rethink which song he wanted to play next.

Mangum’s music continues to shine on, both in its recorded glory and, in recent years, in living performance.

Setlist

Holland, 1945
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Two-Headed Boy
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
Engine
A Baby for Pree
Oh Comely
Naomi
Ghost

Encore

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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