Jeff Mangum hasn't been around much lately. The mystery man behind the oh-so-influential indie band Neutral Milk Hotel made two records, On Avery Island in 1996 and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, before going underground, J.D. Salinger- and Dave Chappelle-style. Mangum has played very infrequently since, but re-emerged this weekend in Asbury Park, N.J.
At the All Tomorrow's Parties' I'll Be Your Mirror Festival, he curated the Friday lineup and played once Friday night and again on Sunday afternoon at the Paramount Theater, right there on the Asbury Boardwalk, not far from where the cops finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do. (They couldn't keep her out of business, though: the immortalized-by-Springsteen seer's storefront is still there, just a seashell's throw from the Stone Pony.)
ATP took place at the 1500-capacity Paramount, across the arcade from Convention Hall (where I once saw the Clash and where Public Enemy played a Sunday night set marred by horrendous sound and Flavor Flav foolishness) and a couple blocks away at the bowling alley bar Asbury Lanes.
The fest wasn't sold out, probably because both Mangum and headliners Portishead have New York concerts coming up this month. But hopefully the no-corporate-sponsors-allowed ATP, which happened at Kutshers' Country Club in the Catskills the last two years, will stay in otherworldly charming Asbury. It's an easy hour and half drive away from Philadelphia, and the price of a ticket includes unlimited access to the pinball heaven Silver Ball Museum, where i spent an hour revisiting my misspent youth on Sunday.
But back to Mangum. The 40 year old Louisiana native sat on the Paramount stage on Sunday surrounded by four acoustic guitars, Neil Young style. There were no horns or other instruments in the mix, but Mangum's tart, Celtic-flavored voice - listen up to "Oh Comely," below, and hear where Colin Meloy of the Decemberists came by his sound - is in excellent shape. And for a guy who took a Greta Garbo runner from fame, he was quite at ease and confident, and while simply strumming away, he puts his elaborately wordy songs across with a showman's dynamic flair.
The set list drew from Aeroplane and Avery, and included one cover each night, each by cracked, gifted Texas songwriters who perhaps signify something about Mangum's own troubles. On Friday, the revered reclusive Romantic did Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You In The End," and on Sunday it was Roky Erickson's "I Love The Living You."
Mangum kept encouraging people to sing along: "I like voices," he said. The crowd was reluctant, though, as if they didn't want to spoil the moment. "We missed you, Jeff," one fan called out, once the room had loosened up a bit. "Well, we have this time together now," he replied. "Don't leave us again!" somebody else desperately hollered, and Mangum paused, and came back with a question: "Do you and I have to go to my therapist to work this out together?"