When we break, we wait for our miracle

Disclaimer: If you’re here to read about my upcoming trip, come back in a few days. If you don’t care about music or how people experience music, you probably won’t enjoy this website so go wander the internet some more. If you don’t know who Jeff Mangum is, go research Neutral Milk Hotel, and whether or not you like them just know that they have changed my life over and over again.

Okay, now for the recap.

I saw Jeff Mangum at Trinity-St.Paul’s United Church in Toronto last night, and it was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen.

Earlier this week, I came in to work early and worked late so I could save up enough time to leave at 1:15pm. I did, and between waiting for the GO train, visiting an ATM, eating and such, I got into Toronto at a little after 3pm. I took the Subway and after a short walk ended up at the venue. The line was a decent size by then, probably about 40 people or so. The people at the front of the line had been waiting since 10:30am.

From the outside (and the inside), the venue is really beautiful. So fitting for the music of Neutral Milk Hotel.

Then the waiting began. It wasn’t too bad, though it was quite humid for a while. I just sat on the sidewalk and ate Tim Hortons, and was constantly fielding questions from people walking by who were wondering why a bunch of young people were lining up for church. Here’s how every conversation went:

Person: “What’s going on here?”

Me: “A concert.”

Person: “Who’s playing?”

Me: “Jeff Mangum.”

Person: “Oh, never heard of him. What kind of music? Religious?”

Me: “Um…he was in a band in the 90s. Indie rock or something?”

Person: “Okay, cool.”

That went on for about an hour, and then things started happening. First, I saw a girl walking down the sidewalk with her hands on her chest and a look of overwhelming emotion on her face, and I knew. I shot my head to the side, and there he was walking up the steps to the church’s other entrance. He smiled and signed an autograph, and was gone. Then the shakes started. I couldn’t stop moving I was so excited. About a half hour after that spotting, the sound started. I could hear Neutral Milk Hotel songs emanating from the church during the sound check, and I couldn’t believe it. It was such a foreign, beautiful thing. I can honestly say I have never heard NMH songs coming from a church before, and I don’t know that I ever will again. Fittingly, the rain then started, with the kind of big warm drops that make summer rain so awesome. It was perfect.

It was so great that it got me through the next two hours of waiting, and I even talked to the person beside me! A little bit. At around 6:10, I was planning on meeting up with a guy who bought a ticket off Craigslist from me, as my Mom was originally supposed to come with me but after her accident the other day waiting in line for hours wasn’t the best idea. After describing my scarf and location, we met up and a few minutes later, they started letting people in.

We entered, and my heart slowed. The church is a beautiful place, as churches tend to be. It was built in 1889, and the 30-40 foot ceiling was covered in stained glass. The sides and the back of the venue also featured beautiful stained glass. I managed to get a spot in one of the pews on the floor of the venue, about five pews back and like ten feet from the stage. The floor was slightly inclined, so no heads were in the way! There was also a balcony covering the sides and back of the venue, making it feel like I was in the bottom of a really beautiful bowl. I looked up, and there was a big chandelier hanging from the ceiling, glinting in the sun. Behind the stage, big brass-colored organ tube structures stretched to almost the ceiling.

The opener was three members of different Elephant 6 bands. Scott Spillane (The Gerbils), Laura Carter and Andrew Rieger (Elf Power) played a few songs together, in front of the backdrop of amber sunlight bouncing off the organ tubes behind the stage. They switched up instruments constantly, something I love about Elephant 6. Laura went from bass clarinet to guitar to vocals to trumpet to bongo, without a hitch. He doesn’t get much fanfare and he looks like a Southern Santa, but Scott Spillane has a beautiful, powerful voice and I really enjoyed it. They covered a song popularized by Vic Chesnutt, as well as a Gerbils song and some Elf Power tunes. They sang about poo and pee and lonely skies, and it was fun and pretty at the same time.

Then the lights went on for a bit of an intermission and my heart went into overdrive. The roadies came out and set up a seat in the centre of the stage, surrounded by four guitars. Then a guy in a hat and a plaid shirt joined them to help with the set up, and guess who it was. Ah! He set up the guitars then left.

Minutes later, the lights went down, and the entire venue was black except for the spotlight on the stage and the colors streaming in from the stained glass lit by the setting sun, which had by then turned the organ structures in the back a bright purple spotted with deep gold.

I honestly don’t remember his first song, I was too shell shocked and in a dream state (edit: It was Oh Comely! I remember! That was also the first song I heard by NMH, so fitting). He played Two Headed Boy Pt. 2, and I sang along with tears streaming down my face (he didn’t even get up to leave at the end! He laughed and said “Okay, that’s it,” but stayed). He played Baby for Pree, and I looked up at the sunlit organ structures and thought to myself this is what heaven looks and feels like. He played Song Against Sex and Holland 1945 and Gardenhead and everything, everything. He played Ghost with the help of Laura and Scott on bass clarinet and french horn, and I missed Julian Koster on musical saw only a little bit. He played King of Carrot Flowers, and the light turned from purple to orange and it was perfect. He stopped playing guitar and led the crowd in an acapella singalong of the I Love You Jesus Christ part, and it felt sacred without the pretense of religion. He played In An Aeroplane Over the Sea, with the help of horns from the back room, hidden from sight but warming up the song. Jeff smiled when the crowd cheered at the start of that one, and it was beautiful. Mainly because he looked terrified and fragile and haunted but happy. At one point he asked the crowd if we were happy, and we cheered. Someone in the crowd asked back, “Are you happy?” Jeff got him to repeat it, and answered, “Yeah, I’m happy.”

I spotted his wife or who I’m pretty sure is his wife a few times, and I can’t help but think she’s the one who gave him the confidence to get up on stage again. He looked scared but was in just about the most vulnerable position possible, alone on stage surrounding by anonymous people. She looked happy or maybe it was just the polka dot dress, and she sat in the back pews along with Rieger after his set. When Jeff sang True Love Will Find You In the End, it gave me chills and made me believe in love.

Eventually, his set ended and he left. The crowd roared and he came out for an encore, Engine. That was it and he smiled and waved and walked away. Every song was perfect. Though he brought a single piece of sheet music or lyrics on stage and occasionally referenced it, it sounded to me like he had sang those songs everyday of the last 13 years or however long it has been. Every note, every song, every lyric was perfect. I felt like it wasn’t time to end, wasn’t time to leave…so I didn’t. I sat in the church until they told me to leave, then sat outside until people started looking at me like I was a vagrant. I held my recently purchased shirt and poster (!!) and listened to the stage crew who were outside for a smoke. They said under the spotlight, Jeff looked like Bob Dylan.

The poster I bought is of a stage, surrounded by a crowd and lit up by spotlights like the ones from last night. On stage, the lights are highlighting an angel, who has her wings spread. I don’t know what it means, but it’s magical, just like last night.

I’ll have that night for the rest of my life, and if I ever see heaven or an afterlife or the inside of a box underground, I hope it is lit by a setting sun and stained glass, and I hope the songs of Neutral Milk Hotel ring in my head like hymns.

Thanks for the memories, Jeff. Soft silly music is meaningful and magical, indeed.

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