Live Review: Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center

22 Jan

When you hear Jeff Mangum’s name, it’s hard to think of him as anything other than the “reclusive” persona writers have pegged him as. The truth is, I’ve seen Mangum first hand, and he’s nothing of the sort.

Last night, Mangum brought his highly exclusive, extremely anticipated tour to Houston’s Wortham Center in Downtown, and the place was sold out. It might go down as one of the most surreal, genuinely touching concerts I’ve experienced as of yet.

The crowd, which ranged from pre-teen to retired, dressed in their best “going out” clothes. There were no torn jeans, the tights weren’t ripped, and majority of the 21+ crowd was drinking wine or a cocktail versus beer. While it sounds like a strange way to gauge things, the same people sitting around me are the same ones that show up for $2 Lone Star nights and end up swinging their gorilla-sized hands in the air during a free show put on by the same production company, Pegstar. It was pretty nice to see everyone well-behaved at a venue that usually hosts events from orchestras and opera singers. Hell, one of the chandeliers probably costs more than my car.

The show started promptly at 8 p.m. when Tall Firs politely took the stage. The duo sat near one another in the middle of the stage, sharing a Fender Super Reverb and knocking out eight songs from their self-titled debut, 2008’s Too Old To Die Young and 2012’s Out of It and Into It.

In between tracks such as “Hairdo” and “So Messed Up,” band-mates David Mies and Aaron Mullan trade out guitars to get the right sound on each song while partaking in humorous banter. But among stories of stoned kids in OKC and prostitutes in St. Louis, Mies got the last laugh when he and Mullan snubbed Pitchfork’s Aaron Leitko for ripping apart Mies’ version of “I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face” by Arthur Russell.

Tall Firs have the airy, atmospheric chops of Explosions In The Sky, with more of a knack to sound like Sonic Youth or Pavement. Vocally, the two sound like they mastered the whiskey and cigarette routine while extensively studying every album in their personal collection. When stripped down, their songs left the crowd silent and transfixed in the dark of the room.

Following a brief intermission, Mangum took the stage wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and a hat while the house lights stayed on halfway – most likely at his request. But though he looked a bit more gray and grizzly when compared to the photos taken of him playing to Occupy Wall Street protestors a year ago, Mangum still looks relatively youthful.

As he sat in his chair aside four acoustic guitars, he dived straight into “Oh Comely,” sounding just as crisp and sincere as the recorded version we’ve all heard hundreds of times. After a long applause, Mangum prodded the audience to sing along with him to “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” which were played continuously.

Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center last night. Photo by Ed Abello (@sensitive_b)

Though backing instruments such as horns and accordions weren’t part of the set, Mangum’s voice left nothing to be desired. Instead, the crowd acted as an a cappella version of the track, singing back trumpet sections as the hall echoed with the intensity of the experience. And while Houston crowds are notorious for misbehaving, there were only a few that were unable to keep their composure or follow the rules. Some were seen running around the room back and fourth with friends they’d spotted, others forgot to take the flash off of their camera and could be seen by everyone going against his “no photography” rule.

Even so, Mangum took song requests with stride – either accepting them or politely explaining that he was without the proper pedal – and he even laughed at a man who shouted out “Keep Austin Weird!” after divulging that his family was from Texas. He could even be seen talking to people at the front of the house, and often asked the crowd the keep singing along with him or move forward if they felt the desire.

Throughout the hour-long set, Mangum pulled songs off both albums – On Avery Island and In An Aeroplane Over The Sea – and also found time to cover Roky Erikson’s “I Love The Living You.” Often times he stopped to use throat spray and guzzle down a bottle of water that required two hands. But aside from what looked like a minor cold, Mangum was in high spirits, often responding to a rogue “thank you!” or “I love you!”

“No, thank you,” Mangum mused as he placed his hand over his chest before diving into “Song About Sex.” “Thank you from the depths of my soul. I never expected this, I didn’t even think anyone would ever pay attention to me.”

At the end of his set, Mangum smiled and waved with sincerity as the crowd erupted in applause and gave him a standing ovation. And whether planned or not, Mangum came out one last time to finish the night with “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.” That, of course, got another standing ovation.

And just like that, Jeff Mangum disappeared behind the curtains and the dream came to and end.

Set List
Oh Comely
King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 1-3
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Engine
Two Headed Boy, Part 1
I Love The Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
Song Against Sex
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Naomi
Ghost
Two Headed Boy, Part 2

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