It’s not often I feel like crying at gigs. Yes, I do enjoy a good cry most days and most trivial things (my mum was right; it does get worse as you get older), but not at a gig.
Gigs for me are synonymous with a lot of waiting around, impatient drinking, sweaty crowds and general hassle. In case you hadn’t worked it out, I’m not a festival kind of girl. I don’t get emotional at gigs; I get angry and tired.
So when I can have a seat in a nice, cool, aerated room and listen to some truly haunting music, obviously I’m going to have a bit of a happy cry.
The gig in question was curated and performed by Jeff Mangum. The frontman of 90s cult band Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff struck an awesome figure alone on stage at the Union Chapel in Highbury and Islington.
A bit of background: Jeff Mangum has been AWOL for the past decade. I don’t really care about the mystery surrounding his whereabouts – it’s completely irrelevant – although some die-hard fans like to set store by the legend. Look, Jeff’s just a talented bloke with a guitar who produced a couple of excellent albums and then stopped for a bit. He’s back now though, and that’s the main thing.
Jeff rose to notoriety after his album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a beautiful, catchy collection full of weird imagery including girls with flowers on their eyes and two-headed boys. It’s based loosely on the life of Anne Frank, which admittedly is a bit of a peculiar premise. But after having seen the album for sale in a record shop in Amsterdam extremely close to the Anne Frank House, there’s obviously some kind of resonance with the theme. If it’s good enough for Amsterdam…
The Union Chapel is a gorgeous, inconspicuous church with a lightless interior and booming acoustics. Complete with bar on premises (no alcohol on holy land itself, obviously), and your standard uncomfortable wooden pews, the setting inspired a hushed silence from what I suspect would be a much rowdier crowd if they’d been watching the same gig at KOKO.
The opening act was The Music Tapes, an “experimental pop music project” from Jeff’s neighbourhood. Fronted by Julian Koster, his banjo, foot drumming and bow saw, “experimental” is an apt word for them. Between tales of European folklore, he’d play some wandering notes amidst some incomprehensible lyrics. I quite liked them, but they were no match for Mangum.
His voice is quite simply, spectacular. With the nasality of Placebo combined with the heart-grabbing, lyrical power of Neil Diamond (it’s my analogy and I’m sticking with it), he literally threw every fibre of his soul into every song. I’ve only ever heard that kind of passion before in opera. Supported by Koster’s bowed saw, the sounds produced were staggering.
Mangum played songs from both albums, but it was songs from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea that got the best reception. And generally, booming applause around a church tends to make your spine tingle.
The album’s title track is my favourite, and when Mangum came back returned for not one but two, standing ovations, that’s when the tears fell.
As powerful as his voice is, Jeff Mangum came across as a quiet, unassuming man who looked like he had no idea why he was playing to a crowd who lapped up every note he sang. ‘Quiet genius’ is an apt phrase to use here.
While you probably won’t cry like the baby I am, I defy you not to feel something stirring in Mangum’s voice. Or at least get a bit spooked by that whining bow saw.