Concert Review: Jeff Magnum @ Carnegie Music Hall, 1/10/13
Jeff Mangum at Carnegie Music Hall (1/10/13)
When I initially saw the headline “Jeff Mangum Announces 2013 Tour Dates,” I had begun planning my trip to Washington D.C. or Philadelphia before my mouse had even clicked on the hyperlink. A handful of marquee indie acts have the inconvenient habit of bypassing Pittsburgh in their tour of the East Coast. However, as I scrolled through the list of dates, it became apparent that Mangum was a refreshing exception- his second show was booked for the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, a venue which is not only within walking distance, but also one that I can see from my “house.” And then I woke up—
Without bothering with all the preshow anticipation and chaos, I’ll just delve right into the music. The first band to take the stage was four-piece indie-folk outfit Briars of North America. Along with most other members of the audience, the first I had heard of this group was when my Mangum tickets arrived in the mail. However, I also would not be alone in expressing what a pleasant surprise their performance was. Armed with two lead vocalists, a banjo-player, and an excellent upright bassist, Briars set the low-key and percussion-free tone for the evening. The band employed fuzzy vocal harmonies that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Fleet Foxes record, and the instrumental versatility of (dare I say it) the supporting cast members in Bon Iver. Only time will tell if they can rise to the zenith of those acts, let alone break out past Mangum’s audience.
The same cannot be said for the next opener, Tall Firs. Tall Firs are an electric-folk duo based out of Annapolis, Maryland who are (somewhat) known for their overly melancholy lyrics and droning song structure. Unfortunately, some intricate guitar work could never rise above vocal work which is best classified as second-rate Kurt Vile-imitation. It was kind of like The War on Drugs, without any percussion— or the drugs for that matter. Odd tongue-in-cheek and ironic commentary interspersed between all of their songs also made for an uncomfortable experience. I love watching great live comedy, but something tells me they should have pursued a Comedy Central pilot instead of a career in music. After the second song or so, my eyes began to drift across the music hall’s exquisite ceiling and my foot subconsciously tapped its way through “King of Carrot Flowers.” Soon enough…
After much anticipation, the man himself emerged from behind the curtain. And I have to admit, his image was rather striking at first. It looked as though Mangum had been staying in Zucotti Park ever since his performance there in the fall of 2011. His shoulder-length hair and convict-Jean Valjean beard were both permeated with splotches of gray, providing some of his original fans with one of the most unpleasant concert-going feelings: the sensation of aging. Luckily for the audience, Mangum put to rest any concerns of vocal fatigue from the word “two.”
He kicked off the set with a startling and intense rendition of “Two Headed Boy.” Mangum demanded the audience’s undivided attention, with only a few courageous audience-members daring to sing along. However, soon after the opening track’s conclusion, Mangum laid out the casual and easy-going demeanor which would maintain for the rest of the evening, inviting the entire audience to sing along. Without further ado, Mangum led the entire audience through the “King of Carrot Flowers” saga in what felt like the country’s largest coffee house. The rest of the evening would be marked by extensive audience interaction and on-the-fly requests.
And how about that voice: Jeff Mangum is frequently classified in the category of “perfectly imperfect” singers. While many may label it as grating or shrill upon first listen, the inescapable raw emotion and power form a distinct sound that is impossible to ignore. Without a backing band, these qualities took center stage, along with Mangum’s pure vocal talent. During transitions between sections of “Oh Comely” and “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2&3,” Mangum held powerful notes for so long that I almost checked my watch.
As Mangum transitioned into some of NMH’s more upbeat tunes throughout the night like “Holland, 1945” and “Song Against Sex,” some younger members of the audience swarmed the front of the stage to dance the way our parents might have at a rock concert— in a formless and chaotic euphoria, spared of the perversion associated with modern hip-hop. Sitting in the front of the theater, it was easy to adjust to the swarms, but if I had been just a few rows back, Jeff probably would have been obstructed more than I could control. Despite mild my mild annoyance, they did manage to sit back down for the more emotional highlights of the evening like “Oh Comely” and “Naomi.”
Mangum closed his set before the encore with a poignant performance of “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” the masterpiece which almost didn’t make the record. After reducing much of the audience to silence and a puddle of tears, Mangum left the stage with an eruption. The enthusiasm and adoration of Mangum’s fanbase could not have been more apparent than when the audience awaited his return to play “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” with Briars of North America’s horn player. Closing the night with one of his most conventional and optimistic love songs, Mangum implied that he would rather send his audience off smiling ear-to-ear than have them sulking out the door in complete profundity.
Perhaps the best gauge of Mangum’s influence throughout the night came from observing the crowd’s makeup as it left the theater. Ranging from groups of high school kids to adults bracing for middle-age, the spectrum of ages and appearances was striking. To consider that a man who hasn’t released a full-length album in fifteen years can still draw such a loyal following, even without the band or its original moniker, is simply astonishing. When On Avery Island was released seventeen years ago, a large segment of the audience was still reeling in their diaper days, while another segment was figuring out what they were meant to do with life. Witnessing the marriage of these two groups under one roof, all singing along with the same energy and fervor may just have been as rewarding as the music itself.
Quote of the night: “Is this Mumford and Sons?” – guy behind me as Briars of North America took stage
Only upsetting setlist omission: “Where You’ll Find Me Now”