It’s strange to see Jeff Mangum in the middle of the first day of a music festival like All Tomorrow’s Parties — the kind of three-day dream event where you love half the bands playing and like most of the rest. The idea that he’ll take the stage sometime between Chavez (who also almost never perform) and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, as just one in a weekend full of performances, is so bizarre that I spend most of the day in denial.
But then, as we filter into the theater, what’s about to happen starts to become real. For Mangum’s set, and only his, festival goers have been issued separate tickets with assigned seats. I assume this is so the superfans don’t skip every band playing earlier in the evening to camp out in front of the venue in hopes of getting a front-row spot.
The music that plays at a low volume over the PA system while we wait sounds like it might be field recordings from Africa — which makes some sense, as Mangum has a well-known fascination with foreign folk music. We’re not allowed to take pictures, and that’s kind of a relief. Who would want the distraction?
Once the theater is mostly filled and the lights go down, Mangum walks out on stage. He’s tall and pale with a solid frame, wearing a newsboy cap and the kind of olive-drab outfit you might expect to see on a lumberjack or some other kind of uniformed laborer. I’ve seen him before, when he got onstage and sang and clapped at an Olivia Tremor Control performance in 2005 and an Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour a few years later. We’ve gone to a few of the same shows in New York over the years. All of those times, he seemed incredibly fragile. But tonight, at the gorgeous, old Paramount in Asbury Park, Mangum looks much surer of himself, although still vulnerable. The applause isn’t deafening, but there’s a note of slow, somber reverence about it, as though we all can’t believe that the person we see in front of us is actually there, surrounded by guitars.
Mangum sits on a stool and starts to play “Oh Comely.” There is an almost imperceptible note of awkward stiltedness to the first few songs. It doesn’t ruin them, not by a long shot, but it’s there, and it makes sense. Still, the first thing I notice, since Mangum is playing solo, is the power of his voice. This may sound like an obvious observation, but when I listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it’s the eclectic, devotional orchestration that jumps out at me, and, of course, those lyrics. Strangely, those meticulously recorded and produced songs lose nothing in the simplification. The melodies Mangum strums are incredibly spare; it’s all there in his voice, though — his slightly nasal tones reminiscent of Eastern prayers, the way he moves between fast, low verses and the higher, more spiritually inflected reaches of his range. It’s clear in the way he sings them that these songs are still meaningful to Mangum, and there’s something hugely encouraging in that.
Although he’s stripped them down to their essences, the tracks he performs sound remarkably similar to the recorded versions. Mangum plays all of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (except for “Communist Daughter,” which always felt slightly out of place on the album anyway) and the best songs from On Avery Island (“Song Against Sex,” “A Baby for Pree”). Unlike other musicians who’ve retreated from public life and then returned to perform old material (Lauryn Hill, for example), he has resisted the urge to tinker with beloved recordings. When it’s time to play “King of the Carrot Flowers,” he asks the audience to sing along, and they do. Usually, I don’t like hearing the voices from the crowd when I’m there to see the performer onstage, and while I don’t mouth the lyrics myself, the sing-along doesn’t bother me.
Watching this attempt at interaction with the crowd — and everything else Mangum says and does during the performance — it is impossible not to think about what made him stop performing and releasing albums in the first place. From what I’ve heard, he has made similar comments at each show of this tour — and I can imagine the reasons for that. In coming back after so long, Mangum has to figure out how to interact with his fans again. And that problem, as far as I can tell, is a big part of why he went away. When you don’t have a Mick Jagger-sized ego, it must be incredibly difficult to know how to react when people start to recognize genius in you. Everyone knows what the rumors are, and I have no actual evidence to back up this assertion, but I don’t think Jeff Mangum “went crazy.” In fact, he may have dealt with idolization the only way a sane person could. At one point, he admits he doesn’t have much to say, so he’s going to keep playing, unless we have any questions. Instead of really asking anything, people start shouting, “We love you, Jeff!” He doesn’t respond rudely — in fact, he’s affable throughout the show, and even asks for the lights to be turned up before the encore so he can “see all the people” — but he says that he’s sure that isn’t true, even though he appreciates it.
There is always something uncomfortable about seeing a performer who you’re not entirely sure wants to be seen. Although I have good guesses about why Mangum stopped playing, I have no idea why he’s suddenly back. Whatever his reasons are, I’m still troubled by the idea that to even be in this room, with such selfish expectations, is to somehow participate in exploitation. That isn’t to say I regret seeing him, or that I don’t enjoy it or feel fulfilled by the experience. The opposite is actually true — and Jeff Mangum is obviously an intelligent adult, capable of making his own decisions and dealing with the consequences of them. But I can’t say I don’t feel the tiniest bit complicit in making him into a spectacle again.
When the show is over, after about an hour, I’m not longing to hear more. The truth is, it’s a lot to process. I follow my friends to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy afterward, but I can’t keep my mind on that performance. Even as a fan of Will Oldham’s, his big band and onstage theatrics seem somehow artificial.