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Pitchfork Music Festival 2014: Saturday Recap


After a relatively calm and relaxing start to the weekend on Friday courtesy of artists like Sharon Van Etten and Sun Kil Moon, Saturday at the Pitchfork Music Festival found quite a bit more rhythm and energy and was all the better for it. Not only that, but with plenty of hip hop, R&B, electronica and loud rock bands to go around, it was also the most widely diverse day of the weekend. As with Friday, I attempted to scatter myself around Union Park as much as possible to get a little sample of just about everything. On the whole,the day was rather delightful. Here’s my recap of how it all went down.

I skipped out on the first couple of bands on Saturday so I could finish some writing and post my recap from Friday. That may not have been the best idea as it turns out, because I got word from a few different people that sets from Twin Peaks, Ka and Circulatory System were all incredible and some of the day’s highlights. Of course there were plenty of highlights later in the day too if you knew where to look for them. I arrived on the premises in time to catch most of Wild Beasts‘ performance, which made for a lovely start to Saturday. Their dark and at times intense melodies thankfully translated well to the sunny outdoor festival setting, and much of the crowd danced along accordingly. Singer Hayden Thorpe looked a little toasty wearing a denim suit, and given the highly sexual nature of many of the band’s songs, if he didn’t mind the warmth perhaps leather would have been more appropriate. While a majority of the set list focused on their most recent album Present Tense, they did incorporate a fair amount of older material as well, including a glorious version of “Bed of Nails.”

The last time Cloud Nothings performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, their set got rained out about halfway through. They were in the final couple of minutes of an extended jam session when the power was cut to avoid a serious safety hazard. The band finished the song anyways, even though you could barely hear them. It was an incredible and memorable moment, one of the best in the history of the festival. Now two years later, the band still seems angry they weren’t allowed to finish their set back then. They come out like a blitzkrieg attack and throw everything they have into a rage-filled performance that doesn’t let up for more than 45 minutes. It drives the crowd into such a frenzy that security is forced to kick all of the press photographers out of the pit within two minutes due to an excess of crowd surfing and moshing. I didn’t visibly see anybody get injured during that set, but wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it happened. Still, it was an incredible display of aggression and release, which I think everyone desperately needed. Mark them down as one of Saturday’s best, no question about it.

Because he’s a member of my Class of 2014, and because his debut EP Worth is….worth your time, I stopped by the Blue Stage for a bit to see how Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) was doing. For the most part, his set was going relatively smoothly. His setup was basically an army of varying different electronic machines on a table, and he spent the majority of time pushing buttons and twisting knobs to get the particular beats and sounds desired. Not the most exciting thing to watch, though Arsenault made things significantly more interesting simply by his behavior and facial expressions. When he’d be playing around with various sounds, more often than not this expression of extreme pain came across his face. Of course he wasn’t in any actual pain, it was just how the music was affecting him on an emotional level. You could hear it in his vocals too, which were also modulated with who knows what sorts of effects that emphasized his upper register while giving off the impression he was singing underwater. Those vocal moments were also when he broke away from his table of electronics to bring a greater physicality to the performance and the points he was trying to get across. My only real issue was that it didn’t always sound like Arsenault was singing on-key the whole time. Maybe it was the modulation effects or maybe it’s his own unique yelping style, but there were moments when I genuinely said to myself, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” All the instrumental stuff was fine and great, it was just the vocals every now and then that threw me off.

Speaking of throwing people off, Pusha T wasn’t exactly doing himself any favors by starting his set 35 minutes late. Apparently his DJ failed to show up on time, and that was the cause of the delay. As a result, he did his best to make the most of the 25 minutes left for his time slot. He raced through track after track, often cutting each one off after a verse or two, just to ensure he touched on the maximum amount of his catalogue. In spite of everything, it was a pretty decent set, almost as if Pusha was working extra hard to knock it out of the park to make up for the earlier issues. It makes me wonder though how much better it might have been had he used those first 35 minutes and actually performed full tracks instead of only giving us a little taste of each. Maybe next time.

tUnE-yArDs remains a formidable live act, as Merrill Garbus and her band continue to grow with each new record. When she performed at Pitchfork a couple of years ago, she was trapped on the smaller Blue Stage in the early afternoon, yet still managed to deliver one of the weekend’s finest and most remarkable performances. Now graduated to a big stage with a late afternoon slot and a gigantic crowd, she sought to make the most of it. Honestly, while I loved just about every second of the show, it also disappointed me a little. She’s touring in support of the new album Nikki Nack, and devoted much of the set list to songs from that record, which quite frankly isn’t her best. It’s not a bad record by any stretch, nor was her performance, but I feel almost like her ferocity has somewhat diminished. Like, before she was an underdog, but now she’s the alpha and is taking a victory lap. As little as a year or two ago, she would build almost every single song using loops, would go beyond what’s on record to have fun in extended jam sessions, and would invigorate the crowd by yelling things like, “Do you wanna live?” There wasn’t much of any of those things this time around, and now I kind of miss them. Her voice is as powerful as ever though, and the songs are still amazing, not to mention there’s all sorts of polyrhythms and crazy percussion. The point is, there’s still tons to love about tUnE-yArDs, just maybe not quite as much as there was before.

Saturday was a big day for my Class of 2014, and I was particularly excited to see how Kelela would fare in a festival environment. She makes some fascinating experimental R&B, which is nice because it breaks away from some of the more standard stuff that gets the bulk of the attention these days. Backed by only a DJ, she worked the stage with total confidence and control, sticking largely to tracks from her Cut 4 Me mixtape. That brought a different sort of energy to her set – one that was equal parts upbeat, sensual and intimate. The ability to conjure something like that up on a sunny, late afternoon outdoor stage is a rare quality, and it attracted more people over time like moths to a flame. That, and her smooth, syrupy vocals just made you feel good all over. I was quite impressed, mostly that she truly lived up to the hype that goes along with being a promising young artist. Whatever she does next, it should be pretty great.

There’s not a whole lot that I want to say about Danny Brown‘s set, mostly because I wasn’t paying close attention throughout most of it. When I did, all evidence suggested that the crowd was having a great time. When I say great, I mean GREAT. Like hands waving, jumping around, smiling and laughing sort of great. Perhaps that’s because Brown was powering through all of his most excessive and salacious material, while completely ignoring the more introspective and sincere tracks in his catalogue. That’s understandable given the summer festival setting, but also a bit shallow on the whole. You can celebrate with “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” and get into a “Kush Coma,” but those are the favorite topics of almost every other rapper out there. Brown could have separated himself from that world for at least part of the set, and it would have made a great difference. Instead, he told the crowd he wanted to hang out and party. Not much wrong with that. Not much right either.

What can be said about St. Vincent‘s performance at Pitchfork? Nothing really. Over the course of the last several years, Annie Clark has become a powerhouse of rock and roll. Put a guitar in her hands and watch her conquer even the most apathetic of music lovers. Following her highly choreographed live show and tour with David Byrne in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 version of St. Vincent has incorporated many of those same ideas into her sets. There are certain routines for most songs, followed very precisely by Clark and her bandmates. It lacks a certain spontaneity, but looks pretty cool. Besides there’s still plenty of room for freestyling, particularly on the guitar solos, which she absolutely ripped through on tracks like “Rattlesnake” and “Marrow.” Then there’s the slow descent into madness that is the show-stopping finale of “Your Lips Are Red,” leaving her thrashing around in the crowd and on the ground, making all sorts of sonic hell with her guitar. Not only is it thrilling to watch, but also thrilling to listen to. I’ve never ever seen a bad St. Vincent show, and sincerely hope that I never will.

My final stop by the Blue Stage on Saturday was to catch part of the set from the third Class of 2014 artist performing that day, FKA twigs. The R&B artist has been strongly building up hype over the last couple of months with the announcement of her debut album due out in mid-August, and preceded the white hot new single “Two Weeks.” Her set presented a great way to preview the new material as well as get further absorbed into the unique world that she has carved out for herself. The end results were decidedly mixed. She was supported on stage by a total of three percussionists with electric drum pads, which were used for both rhythmic purposes as well as to trigger samples and beats. In some ways her songs were even thinner and more skeletal than Kelela’s earlier in the day, which would be fine if you couldn’t hear the sounds of St. Vincent’s roaring guitar out in the distance. twigs, aka Tahliah Barnett, didn’t do a whole lot to help herself early on either, particularly as the vocals for her first song were more whispered than they were sung. Of course there was steady improvement after that, and it seemed like she found her footing as she moved around the stage dancing to the beats and softly cooing as required. Try though she might, Barnett was unable to reach the same level of intimacy nor display the same level of confidence and poise that Kelela had already shown was possible. The two artists aren’t the same and certainly have their own unique styles, just at the moment its clear one is more practiced and better at performing for a large outdoor crowd than the other. twigs managed to pull in a pretty sizable crowd who were rabid fans eager to hear material from EP1, EP2 and the forthcoming LP1, and most I’m sure felt like they got exactly what they wanted. Personally, I’m intrigued to see if a dark, indoor venue would make for a better live delivery system of her gorgeously fragile songs.

Having seen Jeff Mangum perform solo back in 2012, I was pretty sure what to expect when it came to Neutral Milk Hotel‘s headlining set on Saturday night at Pitchfork. Sure, the songs and setlist were just about the same, but it turned out to be a far different beast than anticipated. First all of the songs sounded mightier and more energized with the full band behind them. In particular, “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3” hit with such a great impact that it drove the crowd into a frenzy that included a strong push forward to get closer to the stage, followed by some actual moshing, which is not really something you’d ever expect from a Neutral Milk Hotel show. There were sing-alongs galore, especially for anything on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the middle part of the set that was decidedly short on that material allowed the earlier insanity to mellow out a bit. The night wrapped up with Mangum taking a largely solo turn on the epic “Oh Comely,” which is exactly as it should be. With a strict no photos/filming policy (even the video screens were shut off), there was a certain comfort in knowing that the crowd wouldn’t be preoccupied with capturing the show on their phones and instead just living in that moment for once, acknowledging others around you and realizing we’re all in this together. That was probably the band’s intention, and I exited Union Park that evening feeling tired but also more connected.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2014: Saturday Preview


Of the three days that comprise this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I think that Saturday might be the most eclectic and strange. If you love hip hop, R&B or electronica, there’s a whole lot of wild choices to make. There’s also plenty of other genre-baiting stuff too, in accordance with the different strokes for different folks balance. I will say this much though: the quality of artists here is completely off the charts. Some of the choices you’ll need to make might be a little harder than you think. Which is why I’ve put together this handy preview guide to try and provide some sort of guidance. As a reminder, the artists are listed by the hour block in which they’ll be performing, and my official recommended picks are denoted with a **. In case you missed any of my previous posts, you can click here for the Artist Guide, which features music from every single artist on this year’s lineup. You can also have a look at the Friday Preview Guide as well, should you be attending multiple days. Enjoy, and share who you’re most excited about seeing this year in the comments!

Twin Peaks [Green Stage, 1:00]**
Similar to Hundred Waters’ standalone time slot on Friday, Twin Peaks get 45 minutes of unopposed performance time to kick off Saturday. That’s likely due to The Julie Ruin dropping out some months back due to Kathleen Hanna’s health issues. But that loss is Twin Peaks’ gain, as the local Chicago garage rockers are sure to put on a high energy and fun set that will be a fantastic way to pump you up for the day of music ahead. Their debut album Sunken was more of an EP than anything else, packing in a bunch of songs across only 20 or so minutes, complete with a whole bunch of sloppy, Replacements-style guitar jangle. That’s meant as a compliment. They’ll have another new album called Wild Onion out in less than a month, and they’ll likely be playing a bunch of unheard songs from that as well. If the new stuff is on par or better than what we’ve already gotten from them, look for this band to start breaking big sooner rather than later.

Ka [Red Stage, 1:45]
Circulatory System [Blue Stage, 1:55]**
At last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Killer Mike made an incredibly strong impression with a set that was a lesson in emotionally invested storytelling. He proclaimed that hip hop wasn’t something that needed to advocate for guns and violence, and could in fact be used for good, positive messages. Ka’s version of hip hop doesn’t really have positive messages, but instead seeks to inspire change in our culture by chronicling the issues on our streets in a very informative way. He’s an excellent lyricist, but it’s the highly emotional way that he says those words that really force you to take them to heart. For all practical purposes, his set could be pretty dramatic and remarkable. Meanwhile, Circulatory System is basically an Elephant 6 band featuring a majority of the members from Olivia Tremor Control. If you only understood about half the words in that last sentence, let me try to clarify a little better. They’re basically a lo-fi indie pop band with particularly creative, often odd or twee leanings. Consider them a companion and warm up to Neutral Milk Hotel, headlining later in the day. It’s entirely possible that even Jeff Mangum himself might pop on stage to contribute to a song or two. The collective’s leader Will Cullen Hart composed their latest album Mosaics Within Mosaics by dusting off some old unreleased recordings and repurposing/re-recording them for the present. It’s a good record, and the band’s first in 5 years. They’re not particularly active, nor do they tour often due to Hart’s health issues, so the rare chance to see them at Pitchfork might be worth your time.

Wild Beasts [Green Stage, 2:30]**
Empress Of [Blue Stage, 2:50]
The last time I saw Wild Beasts perform, it was about three years ago in an outdoor festival setting on a particularly warm and sunny day. Considering that their highly sexualized and highly stylized R&B sound is best experienced in a dark and intimate setting, it felt a little bit out of place. But the band did their best to make the most of the situation, and it turned out to be rather enjoyable overall. I’m expecting them to fare even better this time around, considering their new record Present Tense is their liveliest and most gorgeous to date. They’ve dramatically increased their use of synths and complex percussion, which should be fascinating to see recreated in the live setting. That, and frontman Hayden Thorpe’s vocals remain utterly arresting. If you’re looking to keep your energy high in the early afternoon hours however, your better bet will be going to check out Empress Of (Lorely Rodriguez). She’s only got an EP and a couple of singles to her name so far, but has already made quite the impression with material that ranges from damaged art pop to bubblegum synth pop. Yes, most of her songs are catchy and danceable, and she might be best described as a slightly more mainstream-oriented version of Grimes. The thing is however, since this is still a relatively new project (less than 2 years old) and we haven’t heard a ton of material from it yet, there’s a bit of an uncertainty about how well her performance might go. I’m sure she won’t be bad by any means, but will she likely be a much better performer about a year from now? Probably. Empress Of’s set will be what you make of it, so don’t be afraid to let loose and have some fun!

Cloud Nothings [Red Stage, 3:20]**
Mas Ysa [Blue Stage, 3:45]
When Cloud Nothings performed at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, it was in the middle of a tremendous rainstorm. Their set didn’t start that way, but it absolutely finished that way. The most fascinating thing was that as the rain got heavier, the band played harder. You could say they wanted to match the intensity of the weather. They were forced to stop when conditions became too dangerous and electricity was cut to their stage. They still finished the song they were playing though, screaming into the crowd because the speakers weren’t working. That’s passion and dedication, and it made for one of the best musical memories of that year. Hopefully the weather stays dry this year, and they’re able to get a full set in. It’s going to be some high energy, incredibly raw punk rock. Dylan Baldi’s voice still absolutely shreds too. Meanwhile on the small stage, composer Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) will be whipping up his unique blend of emotional, experimental pop. His only released recordings to date were compiled on the Worth EP, which came out this past winter to strong reviews. What that EP primarily showed was that Arsenault was capable of a wide range of styles and tempos, but that his intensely heartfelt vocals took center stage no matter if he was belting out a ballad or soaring on a wave of pure energy. The guy is clearly talented and has great things ahead of him. It’s probably why I also named him as part of my “Class of 2014” project. With a debut full length on the way, it might be interesting to see what he decides to do during his Pitchfork set.

Pusha T [Green Stage, 4:15]**
The Range [Blue Stage, 4:45]
It’s critically acclaimed hip hop vs. critically acclaimed electronica for your four o’clock music choices. The choice is easy if you prefer one over the other, but what if you prefer both or neither? If you’re stuck, here’s my advice: go with the more interesting stage show. In this case, that’s clearly Pusha T. Hip hop can be really exciting to watch, especially when the crowd is into it and chants choruses or key lines from tracks. There’s likely a “hype man” trying to keep up the energy, and guest stars are always a plus too. I’ve heard good things about Pusha T’s live show, and some of the clips on YouTube make it look like an absolute blast. Then you have The Range’s instrumental electronica. James Hinton is the man behind the name, and he does a remarkable job blending a variety of different styles and influences into this very clean-sounding dance music. If you love drum & bass or Disclosure-style R&B, this should be right up your alley. Of course it’s also likely just going to be a guy sitting behind some turntables or a laptop the whole time. If you can ignore what’s happening on stage and simply commit to dancing mindlessly, perhaps The Range will be where you want to be.

tUnE-yArDs [Red Stage, 5:15]**
Kelela [Blue Stage, 5:45]
If you’ve never seen tUnE-yArDs perform live before, you’re missing out. Seriously, I’ve seen Merrill Garbus a handful of times now, and have been blown away during all of them. Her powerful vocals are her biggest selling point, but acclaimed records like w h o k i l l and this year’s Nikki Nack also showcase amazing songwriting and highly experimental song structures that make you want to dance and cheer at the same time. It only gets better witnessing it in person, particularly when Garbus is able to construct many of her songs using looping pedals. Per some reports I’ve read surrounding her touring for this new album, she appears to be doing a little less looping than before, but some is still more exciting to watch than none. It makes me feel a little sorry for Kelela, who has a lot going for her but simply can’t compete in this time slot. If you’re not familiar with Kelela, she’s a fantastic R&B singer who’s been on the rise for the last year or so thanks to her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me. What separates her from similar artists are her experimental leanings. She’s able to add some significant twists to traditional R&B thanks to creatively stimulating compositions that have also caught the attention of some of the dance crowd. She’s already released a new single and a collaboration with Tink this year, but if we’re lucky we might also get a full length album this fall. Perhaps she’ll offer up a little preview at the festival?

Danny Brown [Green Stage, 6:15]**
The Field [Blue Stage, 6:45]
For the second time in a three hour period, you’ve got hip hop vs. electronica. I’ve discussed the pros and cons of each already above (see Pusha T vs. The Range), so really whichever you choose to go see may be dependent on previous material. The dynamic between Danny Brown and The Field feels a lot more intense to me, in no small part because both artists are quite prolific at what they do. On last year’s Old, Danny Brown reached a new peak by making a record that’s equal parts mature and immature, focused and unfocused. He might not be as goofy as he once was, but he’s more confident and weirder than ever before, which is a delight. Of course many people also find Danny Brown to be annoying and his voice to be a bit grating, which is completely understandable. Maybe then you can find comfort in the arms of The Field. Axel Willner has been making highly danceable electronica at a steady pace for the last few years, and his latest effort Cupid’s Head he may have just eclipsed himself. It’s a darker, more intense affair, which represents a great progression from his earlier material. The real question is what version of The Field will be showing up at Union Park on Saturday. In the past, he’s performed with a band, which brings a lot of extra gusto and crowd-pleasing moments to the show. More recently, he’s taken to performing solo, which makes it a more subdued and drone-intensive show. If Willner does have the full band, that almost tips the scales in his favor against Danny Brown. Notice I said almost. Of course if you’re just looking to dance and could care less, The Field will satisfy.

St. Vincent [Red Stage, 7:25]**
FKA twigs [Blue Stage, 7:45]
I love FKA twigs, I really do, but this one is kind of a no brainer. As St. Vincent, we’ve seen Annie Clark grow significantly as an artist these last few years. Her output only seems to be getting better and better as her songs and style become increasingly complex. By now she’s well established as one of the finest guitarists making music today. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch her tear into a solo with incredible intensity. Her latest album is self-titled, and is technically speaking a major label debut. She added some new digital and electronic wrinkles to many of the songs on that record, which somehow managed to feel like a natural progression. I keep thinking the bottom is going to fall out with the next new record, but it hasn’t happened yet, to my surprise and pleasure. So without a doubt, you should watch and enjoy a St. Vincent show if you have the opportunity, even though the crowd will surely be massive. I’m not sure how many people will be excited to see FKA twigs as the sun begins to set on Saturday, but there’s probably no better time for her to be performing. Her slow burn R&B draws you in like a moth to a flame, which is probably why her first two EPs earned her quite a bit of attention. She’ll be putting out a debut album called LP1 this fall, and the first single “Two Weeks” is pretty incredible. Expect her set to feature more new music, just don’t expect it to be high on energy. If you’re feeling a little tired and might like a nice patch of shade to hang out in as the day draws to a close, head over to the Blue Stage and soak in the FKA twigs.

Neutral Milk Hotel [Green Stage, 8:30]**
In 2012, Jeff Mangum emerged from whatever hole he was hiding in and decided to start performing again. He had been absent from the music scene for over a decade, though occasionally popped up here or there at shows for Elephant 6 bands and the like. I saw Mangum perform solo twice in 2012, and both times it was incredibly riveting as he ran through Neutral Milk Hotel’s two album catalogue with only an acoustic guitar in hand. Part of me questioned why he even needed to get the full band back together, but I guess the songs aren’t quite the same unless you’ve got all the musicians behind it playing along with you. So it shall go to close out Saturday at Pitchfork. Expect it to be fun, and expect a sing-along on an absolutely massive scale. I’ve seen Mangum do the intimate acoustic solo thing, now I’m intrigued to hear those same songs blown out and plugged in for the outdoor festival crowd.

Check out the Sunday Preview Guide!

Show Review: 2 Nights With Jeff Mangum [Athenaeum Theatre; Chicago; 2/6/12 + 2/7/12]


14 years. That’s how long it’s been since Jeff Mangum played a show in Chicago. If you think that’s a long time, there are other major cities where it’s been longer. See, in 1998, after a year’s worth of touring in support of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum put his Neutral Milk Hotel project on hiatus. As we’ve learned from so many other bands, that typically translates to a break up with plans to never return. He was good on his word too, vanishing into the world of the mundane everyday, but still keeping his legend alive with periodic guest appearances on friends’ records or shows. There was the 2001 show in New Zealand where Mangum performed 13 songs under the name World of Wild Beards Incorporated as a favor to his friend Chris Knox. There were also the special appearances at several of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour dates in 2008, in which Mangum perfomed the NMH b-side “Engine” and nothing more. But it wasn’t until 2010 that rumors began to circulate about a potential return to the stage. In May of that year he performed 5 songs at a benefit concert in Manhattan which attracted a flurry of attention for all the reasons you’d expect. The trail went cold once again for a few months until December, when a small crowd of about 100 witnessed Mangum perform 10 songs in a Brooklyn loft.

The start of 2011 appeared to also be the true start of Mangum’s return to the spotlight too, for just about a year ago it was announced he’d be performing at the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in New Jersey that fall. Mangum then announced a handful of East Coast dates to create a pseudo-tour surrounding that festival appearance. The Neutral Milk Hotel website got a shiny new upgrade, a box set was announced that included every single song ever recorded by the band including a bunch of unreleased material, and there was the promise of more tour dates. All of it led to one conclusion: Jeff Mangum is back, and for real this time. It may have taken him a few months of sporadic East Coast dates, but he’s finally made his way back to the Midwest, and with that comes the two nights in Chicago this past Monday and Tuesday. Held at the 900 capacity Athenaeum Theatre, tickets for both shows sold out in a mere couple minutes. I was one of the lucky few to snag a ticket to both nights, which is why I’m pleased to offer this retrospective of both shows.

Opening both nights was the trio of Andrew Reiger, Laura Carter and Scott Spilane, more recently known as members of Elf Power and The Gerbils. Spilane was also a member of Neutral Milk Hotel back in the day, and that played a role in Mangum’s set that I will get to in a little bit. But the three of them shared the stage and assisted in playing one another’s songs in addition to a handful of covers. It was kitschy, it was sparse, it was fun and quite a bit weird too. Most of the crowd sat there and patiently listened, less with enthusiasm and more with a shoulder shrug. I wonder if they sold any merch after the show that wasn’t NMH-related. Personally, I think Reiger, Carter and Spilane are all very talented people, and while I enjoy the occasional Elf Power song, I’ve largely settled on the idea that it’s not quite my cup of tea. It’s all part of the Elephant 6 family anyways, a collective of bands and artists I admire for their creativity and true spirit of independence but have difficulty actually liking. In both hour-long opening sets, the constant switching between instruments and vocalists made for a solid amount of variety, and covers of songs made famous by Randy Newman and Frank Sinatra brought at least a small degree of familiarity to those left in the dark. Did they have to go for a full hour, pretty much equal to the amount of time Jeff Mangum spent on stage in his set? Probably not, but at least it could be considered an attempt to give you your money’s worth.

So the stage was set for Jeff Mangum’s big return. Four different guitars surrounded a lone chair at the center of the stage, when out walked the man, the myth and the legend himself. Wearing his traditional plaid shirt and conductor’s cap, it’s basically his uniform for performing, but that’s not to say he treats it like any real job. The guy that came out on stage for both those shows wasn’t a recluse or a hermit or even somebody that’s a touch off mentally. He was downright jovial, smiling, and entertaining as if no time had passed since the last time he came through town. Of course it had, and on the first night he was asked where he’d been. “Living with the love of my life,” was his reply, and that seemed to satisfy as a round of applause followed it. We all do crazy things for love sometimes, including giving up a very lucrative career as a musician. Throughout both shows Mangum encouraged people to both shout questions at him between songs and also to sing along at the top of their lungs. He did this early on in the first show and much later in the second, and the difference in crowd behavior was noticeable. We’re so polite in the Midwest that nobody is going to speak up unless told to. The questions on the first night were a bit more insightful and larger in number, asking everything from if we’d get any new music (“I really like these older songs, don’t you?”) to which song is his favorite to play live (“Oh Comely”). As for the singing along, there was less of it on the second night but both crowds appeared to be a little apprehensive to try and belt it to the rafters. Both nights I thought I was the only one in my section singing and that the other side of the room was doing a far better job. That may have been the acoustics messing with me. I think the real reason why so many were hesitant to sing was out of pure reverence for the songs. They are in many ways sacred melodies, and we paid to hear them sung by Mangum, not a collection of Mangum devotees.

Between song banter and crowd interaction aside, Jeff Mangum’s performance was nothing short of excellent. The guy has clearly not lost a single step, and in the last decade and a half probably gained a few as well. Having heard a number of official and unofficial Neutral Milk Hotel bootleg recordings from the late 90s, it would appear that Mangum has better control over his voice than before. He wasn’t off-key for a single moment in either of the two Chicago shows, and given some of the pitch-shifting vocal acrobatics required on many songs that was impressive. His ability to hold a single note for an extended period was put to the test as well, and that’s something he passed with flying colors. Speaking purely from a melody standpoint, there was a certain ramshackle charm to strumming these songs out on solely an acoustic guitar. The songs lost none of their emotional power just because there wasn’t a full band to stand behind them. When some of the songs needed a bit more punctuation, Scott Spilane and Laura Carter and other guests would show up out of the wings and add a trumpet here, a flugelhorn there or even a cello as was the case with “Naomi”. Everything coalesced at the end of the regular set when everyone came out to do the instrumental “The Fool”. That’s the sort of song you need a full band for, and it gave his friends the chance for one last curtain call.

The set lists for both nights were almost identical in terms of songs performed, but different in how they were ordered. “Little Birds” was the only song unique to the first night, while “A Baby for Pree” had the distinction of being a second night exclusive. My favorite of the two shows was the first one, and that’s not just because I was hearing so many of the same songs for the second time on the second night. Starting the second night set with “Oh Comely” felt like a crucial mistake to me, as its fragile 8 minutes are better explored once the audience has had a chance to become better acclimated with how the evening is going to go. Put a different way, I consider the song to be the most important in the Neutral Milk Hotel catalogue, and to lead with it feels like playing your trump card too early. The slow and measured “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” felt like a far smoother introduction on the first night, quickly transitioning into the energy of “Holland, 1945” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone”. Generally speaking, the flow of songs felt more organic and balanced in the first set versus the second. Either way though, the night always concluded the exact same way – with a massive audience sing-along of perhaps the most famous Neutral Milk Hotel song, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. After an hour and some change, it left the room in a blissful high, smiles on their faces and a standing ovation. Mangum would give one final wave and stroll off stage in the same leisurely fashion he strolled on. Just like that he was gone. I’m grateful to have at least known after that first night I’d be seeing him again 24 hours later. Once the second night was done though, the crowd of 900 all collectively felt the loss. Cross another “must see” artist off the bucket list, but with the implicit suggestion that it might never happen again, at least not in Chicago. Some people counted their lucky stars they got to spend a single evening hearing classic Neutral Milk Hotel songs being performed by the man that wrote and composed them. I feel eternally grateful to have doubled that, and hope sharing with you either brought back fond memories or helped bring you closer to something you weren’t able to experience yourself. There’s no telling exactly what Jeff Mangum is going to do next. Beyond touring this spring I’m not even sure he knows.

Night 1: 2/6/12
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Little Birds
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3
Ghost
Naomi
April 8th
Oh Comely
Two-Headed Boy
The Fool
**ENCORE**
Engine
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Night 2: 2/7/12
Oh Comely
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3
A Baby for Pree
Engine
Holland, 1945
Ghost
Song Against Sex
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Naomi
April 8th
Two-Headed Boy
The Fool
**ENCORE**
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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