Live Review: Jeff Mangum, Charleston Music Hall

If you had no context, no knowledge of the past 15 years of popular music, and you wandered in seemingly unaware of who Jeff Mangum was and why so many people were packed into a concert hall to hear his simple, ethereal songs, then you might not understand. 

But, then again, maybe you would. Maybe Mangum could help you to understand. 

Jeff Mangum is his own gravitational force, both in mythos and in reality. Have any of us ever gotten tired of seeing that lilting cover of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? Do we get bored when listening to "King of Carrot Flowers" for the 1000th time? Do we still weep when Mangum sings, "how strange it is to be anything at all"? Can Mangum be the man behind this opus? 

Wandering onstage while the house lights were still up, my brother-in-law turned to me and said, "Is that him?" I wasn't a question; more of a proclamation. That was him. He really was here. He was about to play all of our favorite songs. The mere sight of a long-haired, chin-bearded Mangum made the audience rise to their feet; some younger college-goers bowed in a "We are not worthy!" manner. Women and men screamed, "I love you!" Half the crowd could have left after just seeing him come onstage. 

Mangum took his time getting warmed up, dipping his toes in with the deep end with the 8 minute, "Oh Comely," moving   lithely on  to "Two-Headed Boy," then "Song Against Sex" and "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone," before finally indulging us to sing-along with him on "King of Carrot Flowers." The sold out theatre dipped and hummed trying to keep up with his vocal responses--it felt spiritual, communal, cathartic. Everything felt ok. A longing we kept with us had just been cured, and as long as we got to sing along a little more and maybe hear, "Holland, 1945" and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," then we could all get up and make it through the next day. We sang along with Mangum to both songs. People danced, literally, in the aisles. Some wept. Not openly, but quietly, tears gathering at the corner of their eyes.

It was quick evening. Openers The Tall Firs (lovely fellows, by the way) were on by 8:12PM, off by 8:40, Mangum strolled out a little after nine, and we were home by 10:47. But it was all we needed; all we could have asked for. No new material (of course) just Mangum covering most of On Avery Island--including one of my favorites, "Naomi"--and Aeroplane. I heard the usual chatter as we exited: "That was the greatest show I've ever seen," "I'll never be able to see another show in my life," "I can die happily now." Hyperbole, all; but that's what Mangum inspires. And in an era where irony is still very much passed off as credible currency, the evening felt like something genuine.  A small fraction of like-mindedness and unparalleled joy.