Coachella Report 05/10 – In the Aeroplane Over the Polo Fields: Jeff Mangum

Watching Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds perform Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” and then approaching the Outdoor Theatre in time to see Jeff Mangum greet the audience and play “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” triggered a very fine sensation of nostalgia – nostalgia for the time when I first became excited about music. The set-up was perfect – aside from those few idiots in the crowd who insisted on talking about how much they’re “into” Jeff Mangum in the middle of a damn acoustic set. I got to hear many of my favorite Neutral Milk Hotel songs after having feared, for as long as I had known them, that such a thing would never happen – at least not to me; I would never be in the right place, at the right time, as though you needed to be struck by lightening to watch performances off In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And after it finished, I knew that I caught one of the best sets at Coachella.

It is somewhat strange that I found appeal in Jeff Mangum’s set, because when I describe an excellent set, I usually say, “The front man should radiate with high excitement, the music should force your heart to sync to the beat, and you should find yourself dancing and jumping like a madman,” yet I found this simple performance of a man and his guitar – sometimes joined by various horns and the like – to be on the likable scale of those volcanic performances that I love, although never erupting with too much energy itself. It was perfectly fine that, although songs like “Holland, 1945” do contain a lot of excitement, Jeff Mangum would simply talk a little and perform upon his chair, never standing up to jump in the crowd or to climb the stage’s railing.

I had to ask myself, “Is this performance truly as wonderful as it seems? Or am I enjoying this so much because of its rarity and hype?” After all, plenty of people walked away from the set after the first song or two, their heads shaking in disappointment, and some of them saying things like, “This is really lame.” (It was the same phenomenon for Radiohead – I loved their set, but a lot of people disliked it. Did I love it because of my bias for Radiohead?) Well, I don’t have all the Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics memorized – just some of them – and I’ve been disappointed by plenty of hyped acts. I sincerely believe that a combination of excellent songs, great performance, and Jeff Mangum’s friendliness made it to be a Coachella highlight without help of its indie-wonder. I felt that its structure might be like those old folk shows in New York City, with Bob Dylan, which carried an immense power in their simple form.

But going back on the indie-wonder of Jeff Mangum – the hype and love – it sort of reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s set, where there was also that big feeling – “Oh my god, we’re going to see Leonard Cohen!” Jeff Mangum put on a great show on its own merit, sure, but around the set exists the great appreciation for his music and himself. In the report I wrote on The Black Keys, I touched a bit on the lack of “classic” bands – how the indie and alternative bands of the past decade or so may not have the potential to become the next Led Zeppelin – but I wonder how the future generations might handle somebody like Jeff Mangum and an album like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I hope they might consider him in the way I consider somebody like Tom Waits. But I also wonder what Jeff Mangum’s often silence might mean for his music’s legacy. So many questions…

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