“… with his shirt sleeves rolled up, it seemed as if he was going to work in the fields, which I suppose he was, somehow, but rather than fields of wheat, fields of imagination.” – Siobhán Kane travelled to London earlier this month to see Jeff Mangum play at Union Chapel.
Union Chapel is the kind of venue that lends itself to spiritual awakening, through the ‘great creator’ whoever that may be. Tonight it is Jeff Mangum, in the second of his two sold out shows here in London, following on from his recent show in Dublin, and curating of ATP.
Union Chapel recently won Time Out’s Music Venue of the Year, and deservedly so. Over the years I have been drawn to it not only because of its beauty and history (and lovely bar), but its quality programming (for example, last month saw Cass McCombs perform, with support from The Incredible String Band’s Mike Heron, and this month sees Daniel Johnston collaborating with British Sea Power). It also does a lot of good work for London’s homeless community with their Margins Project, which provides an in-house care centre, and outreach programme, with their volunteer-run Margins Union Cafe giving all proceeds towards the project.
So it makes sense, in many ways, that Jeff Mangum seems at home here, as he ambles onto the stage, looking as youthful as when he left our sights many years ago. Support had come from the idiosyncratic Music Tapes, led by Neutral Milk Hotel and Elephant 6 alumni Julian Koster, and what followed was as arresting as it was oddly edifying. Marked out by unusual orchestration, and using various instruments such as banjo, singing saw, piano, and featuring “guests” such as inventions Static the television, and the Clapping Hands Machine, Koster and his two bandmates provided something of an experimental half hour, replete with interesting, diverting stories, and music that sounded at times like a more innocent Gogol Bordello, a more abandoned Beirut; ramshackle, warm, with elements of brass, a story about Koster’s Great-Grandfather, philosophical musings about the importance of memory, glitchy audio footage, pure vocals, and a childlike take on creativity, which was both humorous and satisfying. Later, Koster, through his “goodbye song”, lets us know that their next record will be released in September on Merge, which hopefully might herald some headline shows of their own.
And then, a while later (in the candelit church, which gave a lovely warm glow to the stage and expectant audience), Mangum took to the stage, and without ceremony instantly dove into his compelling work (largely taken from On Avery Island, and Aeroplane Over the Sea) which, though strident, retains an intimacy that is moving. As he flew through songs that reference Anne Frank, odd characters, and so much more, he managed to also reference that quality which brings people back to his work again and again – a committed emotional depth. His intensity was palpable, and was present in “Oh Comely“, to the point where he smacked his lips, as if in honour of the delicious perfection of the song, with his voice acting as another kind of instrument, providing a pleasing drone, a tone in itself, which we were then shocked out of by his knocking on the guitars wood.
“Holland, 1945” felt like a busy stream of words, with a faded old-fashioned sense of things, and guitar plucking; and as he arrived at “Circle of Friends” and “Little Birds“, I was struck by how, with his shirt sleeves rolled up, it seemed as if he was going to work in the fields, which I suppose he was, somehow, but rather than fields of wheat, fields of imagination. There is actually something very earthy, amidst these somewhat cryptic, mystical tales – a sense of nature, perhaps – that radiates through a song like “King of Carrot Flowers“, which ultimately built up to the moment where the crowd became animated, tentatively joining in on ‘Jesus I love you‘ until the stronger cry became pronounced and clear, as if in meditation, and release.
At one point Mangum quips, “you guys don’t have anything to throw?” with someone shouting back “respect!”, which is a word that flitted around the space like a disoriented firefly. Then he brought on some guest musicians, on clarinet, trombone and saw, including Koster, for “Ghost“, which became reminiscent of galloping, runaway horses. Which goes some way in describing what happened a little later, as some of those same musicians entered near the end of “Two Headed Boy” which up until then, was heartbreakingly sad, with Mangum’s spindly guitar; until the coda, where our eyes were cast to the back of the room, with the same guest musicians, waiting in the wings, instruments in hand, (including a drum)- becoming a topsy-turvy marching band, as they walked towards the stage, making a sound like a call to arms, a call to hope, and a call for more (which included a rendering of “The Fool” with The Music Tapes). But suddenly it was over, unbelievably; though the audience would not be sated, until Mangum came back for an encore of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea“, which was clear-sighted and wondrous, but not as much as the fact that surprisingly, he came back for a second encore, looking genuinely touched, and a little overwhelmed, as I was, when he sang Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End“.
In this place where births, marriages and deaths are marked as part of a daily ritual, this night was a celebration of all that is inbetween, life – in other words, with Mangum inhabiting a sacred space where creativity and intensity poked through and had its say, and that sound was something like grace.