before you would even know, glow

[Originally posted 9/6/11]

I would really be doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t write something about the Toronto trip. I didn’t care to do so right away…my first instinct wasn’t to rush to the Internet. August was a crazy month…so much happened in a few weeks that’s realistically going to take a long time to process and reflect on. In the middle of everything was this trip…it was ill-timed to say the least, but something Stephanie and I had been looking forward to for months, and something I’ve been hoping for for years. For the first time in a decade, Jeff Mangum is touring. Not just playing a few tunes at a surprise gig, but an actual, full-fledged tour. For the masses who didn’t hear Neutral Milk Hotel before 2001 (I’d say the majority of fans), this is an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.

Admittedly, I spent a lot of money on this trip, at a time when I wasn’t sure about my future job-wise…but as a teacher, I’ve always planned to splurge a bit over the summer to enjoy myself and go somewhere different. Not many careers allow you so much free time to do that. I booked a room for us at the Madison Avenue Boutique Hotel, a B&B in the Annex area, walking distance from Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, where Jeff would be playing two nights. (Yes, tickets sold out online in minutes, but we still managed to get two for both nights without the scalpers.) This was my first time in Canada, which I’ve been curious to visit ever since finding out my first few online friends all lived in various provinces, so that was something else to be excited about.

The hotel was a standard city B&B, and thankfully our room was located away from the street, so noise wasn’t a problem. Right next door sat a pub owned by the same folks who run the hotel, which put any bars I’ve seen in Athens or Atlanta to shame. It didn’t look big from the outside, but we literally waited 45 minutes in a huge line to get in one night, and we were still able to sit at a table close to the front. It was massive, loud, and there was a reason we were able to get a table: everyone was out on the patio, which is apparently where Canadians go during the summer months.

We flew in from Atlanta to Buffalo to save money, and rented a car to drive up to Toronto. Of course we stopped at Niagara Falls on the first day, and took in the Falls on the Maid of the Mist before crossing the border. They really were breathtaking; you can see nothing but pure white in one direction. The first stop we made in Ontario was Tim Horton’s, which I’ve heard Canadians rave about…and I was underwhelmed. The maple creme filled donut I had was really no big deal. I’d take Krispy Kreme or even Dunkin’ Donuts over Tim Horton’s. You’re right about your beer, Canadians (still looking for some Molson Canadian here), but enough about Tim Horton’s…I hear they use frozen donuts now, anyway.

I don’t know how much detail I should go into about the days that followed aside from the concert…we did a lot of walking around the city, rode a cable car, discovered bubble tea (yes, it can be found in Athens, but we had yet to try it), searched for chicken balls (not as easy to find as we hoped), drank plenty of coffee at the many shops, and had some amazing dumplings and sushi (the latter in line for night two of Mangum). To be honest, cities are a bit overwhelming to me, even Atlanta at times. It was a really fun place to visit and spend a few days, but I would have to get used to it before I’d have any desire to stay. (Five weeks did it in London…I still want to go back.)

For the Friday night show, we arrived at 5:30 to wait in line, and waited until 8:30 before Andrew, Scott, and Laura took the stage. Their set was really enjoyable and demonstrated how much talent the E6 collective contains in their members. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the songs, but I need to be. During their set as well as Jeff’s, the crowd was almost dead quiet in their restrained jubilation. Before his set, Jeff came out casually to set up…like it’s no big deal that he’s even on a stage in front of people again (on Saturday night he did the same, and people started cheering; they even dimmed the lights…he had to tell them to settle down and wait just a few more minutes).

Jeff started with “Oh, Comely.” By the way, we were in the third row on the right facing the stage, in full realization of how lucky we were to be so close. There really aren’t any words to describe it, and I don’t know if I should try. It was by far the most emotional I’ve ever been at a concert; the first time I’ve been in that much awe. When he played “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” I’ll admit I got choked up. Life changing. I could run down a setlist, but you could find that by Googling…I’m not really trying to review the show, just trying to put the experience into words, which I’m having a difficult time doing. Jeff’s voice sounded even better live (I’d say much better) than it did a decade ago. I’ve listened to some old NMH bootlegs since, and I don’t think it’s just me romanticizing my experience. There’s some angst that’s gone and I think it suits the music better.

The venue was perfect. An old church in the middle of a city…no better place to witness a second coming like this. It sounded so good. I don’t know what else to say but that you had to be there. The night ended and I can still remember the feeling as I walked out. Pure disbelief of what I just saw and heard. Night two continued the feeling. Aside from a few changes (“April 8th” and a cover of “I Love the Living You” by Roky Erickson), he played many of the same songs, which were no less overwhelming. The crowd wasn’t so quiet that night.

After the Saturday show, we did some stalking, and I’m not too proud of it, though we got exactly what we wanted. We met Andrew, Scott, Laura, and some other folks behind the church, hoping that Jeff would emerge at some point…being from Athens, we talked about that for a bit, and where Jeff might come if he were to play Athens. (Maybe the church on Milledge behind the Varsity…probably not somewhere typical.) After a few minutes, we felt creepy, so we met some other fans in the alley beside the church, who were also hoping to meet Jeff. No less creepy, but at least we had company. Eventually, Jeff and some others came walking right past us with equipment…and the group of us (it never would have been just me) followed him down to the van. The first thing he said after we greeted him was not to feel bad or anything for coming to say hi…extremely nice guy. I still felt a little bad. We told him we came all the way from Athens; surprised and apologetic, he said he’d probably be playing the 40 Watt soon. So…there you go, Athens folks. Jeff Mangum is coming back. He signed our poster, and we were quickly on our way.

The rest was just a slow return back to reality. We packed our bags that night, and were back in Atlanta the next day. Like I said, the trip was ill-timed, so there were a lot of things to take care of when we got back. But it was an experience that can’t be matched (until I see Jeff again), and a much-needed getaway. I couldn’t be happier that he’s back, in a better place, playing music again.

This isn’t the complete set, but I’ll leave you with a few recordings from Saturday night.

MP3: Jeff Mangum – Live at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre (Southern Souls)