Conversion Party

Dear Hugo Chavez,

Some thoughts of Jeff Mangum @ Asbury Park


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I saw Jeff Mangum perform at a restored theater on the boardwalk in Asbury Park last night. I hadn’t planned on going. When I heard about these shows few months ago, I immediately lowered my expectations of getting a ticket. I just put away any hope of seeing him perform live, and forgot about it.

Something about those two records inspires hysteria in people, and brings out the kooks (myself included). That’s how powerful the stuff is. So the craziest thing about last night’s show was actually how sane the whole thing was.

We drove up to a very quiet scene—a big lit up brick building with people standing on an outdoor patio. The sound of breaking surf, wind. A couple bars. An old lit up hotel in the distance. All very subdued. After a beer, we went in and found our seats in the balcony of the theater, which seemed about three quarters filled.

When Jeff Mangum came out and started to play my first thought was one of sudden concern. What if, instead of being blown away, I was quietly disappointed? The possibility hadn’t occurred to me. The acoustic guitar sounded a bit muffled at first, and the voice, that voice, was quieter than I would have liked.

He opened with Two Headed Boy Part II, the symbolism of which hopefully wasn’t lost on people—picking up where he left off. Any concerns about whether this show would be a disappointment quickly dispersed and the songs took over, one after another. The mystery is as deep as ever. The crowd was silent during the songs, but exploded into applause and cheers when the songs ended. It reminded me a little bit of some of those Dylan bootleg records.

Mangum seemed relaxed and it seemed like he was enjoying himself. He bantered with the audience. People occasionally shouted things at him. Lots of “I love you’s,” one “You saved my life,” and at one point someone yelled, “Are you enjoying this again?” And he said yes, confidently.

One funny thing is that he seemed a little dismayed that everyone wasn’t singing along. “How come you guys aren’t singing?” Which is funny because I feel like that kind of zealous, religious devotion is something he’s tried to bring down a bit, and so now everyone is so concerned about freaking him out, and not going overboard, that they’ve overcompensated in the other direction.

I’m pretty sure he played a new song, too. It was hard to hear what he said before he played it, but it sounded like he said, “Do you guys want to hear a song I’ve only played once before?” Then he launched into something that was definitely not familiar to me, except that it sounded a little like something I could have heard in synagogue as a teenager (in a good way)—somber, scary, beautiful, with snippets of breathtaking imagery. Ok, so maybe that’s not what I heard in synagogue. Anyway…

After playing “Oh Comely,” Mangum says, “Speaking of knowing who your enemies are, are you guys going to the protest on Wednesday?”  Ha. He played one encore—where he brought out a mini-marching band, which was great. My one and only complaint about the show (and it’s not really a complaint) is that at times I was waiting for the horns and the full-on marching band NMH-sound to kick in. Another time perhaps.

After one encore, there was that moment where the audience is trying to make up its mind whether to keep cheering for the second encore or pack it in. The moment passed, the house lights came up, and everyone staggered out onto the boardwalk, smiling, satisfied, happy.

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