Tuesday, September 13, 2011

King of Carrot Flowers Parts 1 & 2

Jeff Mangum is an indie rock legend. He's also a recluse. As the singer, guitarist and primary songwriter of Neutral Milk Hotel, he released two critically-acclaimed albums—including the seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—in the 1990s, then disappeared into obscurity.

It was around this time I was living in Albany, with my pal Skip, who turned me onto The Velvet Underground. He also introduced me to the legend that VU's debut album sold only about 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it went on to form a band. More recently, I've heard a similar claim made about NMH's sophomore effort.

Of course, The Velvet Underground & Nico was released over a quarter century prior to that. I was a latecomer to the NMH bandwagon as well, but only by a few years. Which reminds me of a little list I've been thinking up lately...top five bands I discovered too late and, therefore, never got to see live.

First, let me qualify. This does not include artists who were before my time (e.g. The Velvet Underground). These are bands I missed the boat on because I either didn't fully appreciate them, or simply hadn't heard of them, during their heyday:
  1. Uncle Tupelo
  2. Neutral Milk Hotel
  3. The Replacements
  4. Pavement
  5. The Police
I thought I'd never get the chance to see Jeff Mangum, and that didn't change when I heard, several months too late, that he was playing his first tour in over a decade and a Cambridge show had sold out in a matter of minutes.

Then, a second Boston area show was added, but that too sold out in minutes. So, I decided it might be worth my while to make the trip to western Massachusetts on a weeknight, and I plunked down just under $66 (including fees) for two tickets to that show.

I recruited my good friend June, who had alerted me to the two added New England shows, to drive me to Northampton's Academy of Music Theatre this past Wednesday in exchange for the other ticket. I left work at 4:30 to take the T to Newton to meet up with her for the journey to the 8 pm show.

I got home around midnight, so that means I invested 7 1/2 hours of my time (in addition to shelling out the $66 for essentially one ticket).

But, it was well worth it. My brewing partner, AB (once again, not August Busch), had previously declined interest in the show, on the grounds that he'd be willing to pay $30+ to see NMH, but not Mangum solo.

Well, Mangum did take the stage alone, and would have been forgiven for being a little rusty, but he played his most celebrated material with more energy and enthusiasm than anyone could have expected.

He definitely exhibited the shyness that would be consistent with someone characterized as a recluse, but still had tremendous stage presence, joking with the crowd and encouraging them to sing along, particularly to the horn parts otherwise missing in this solo set.

June and I passed the time on the drive home, piecing together the set list from the notes she scratched on an envelope during the show, using my iPhone to help us with the song titles we didn't really know. Here's the final output of that process:

In case you can't make that out, here's the translation:

Oh Comely
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
I Love the Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Song Against Sex
A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
Holland, 1945

Two-Headed Boy

Wouldn't you know it, but two nights later, I got a call, from the aforementioned AB, informing me that his band-mate's brother is the sound guy for the Mangum tour and could get us on the guest list for the Saturday night show at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. So, two shows in four nights it was.

The Boston show didn't differ all that much from the Northampton performance. Instead of Roky Erickson's "I Love the Living You," he covered Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End," and he was also joined onstage by members of opening act ACME, a string quartet who backed him for a stirring rendition of "April 8th."

The real highlight of the Boston show was that he played a legitimate encore. I'm not talking about the kind of encore that's come to be expected at concerts these days. What I'm referring to is a true encore, "a reappearance or additional performance demanded by an audience," according to Merriam-Webster.

That is, after playing the same two encores he did on Wednesday night, he said good night and went backstage. The hall's lights came on, prompting the audience that it was time to leave, but no one did. For ten minutes, the audience cheered, applauded and essentially begged for Mangum to reappear, which he eventually did.

Those who chose to stick around—which was pretty much everyone, as far as I could tell—were rewarded with hearing the last song Mangum is likely to play in New England for quite some time: "Ferris Wheel on Fire."


  1. Great post. I sold a bunch of NMH on vinyl back in my record store days, but I didn't really pay much attention to it. I only started listening to "Carrot Flowers" a few years ago. I guess I REALLY missed the boat since it literally passed through my hands dozens of times. I will, however, take full credit for being Mountain Goats fan since 1995. I wish I could locate that Shrimper cassette I had of "Hot Garden Stomp".

  2. Thanks Joey. If you're a big Mountain Goats fan, then a little further NMH exploration might be worthwhile.

  3. I can't think of a better show to see, not just because NMH was amazing, but because they shut it down after two phenomenal albums, so you don't get any late-career leftovers in concert, just the songs you know and love.

    If I'm not mistaken, the liner notes to my copy of loaded state that 1,000, not 10,000, people bought a VU album. Your point is still valid, but that goes to show just how far from mainstream radio they were.

  4. Honestly Bryan, I think my friend used a different number altogether. I read 10,000 online, but didn't think to look at the Loaded liner notes. Good idea. I'll check that out tonight.