NORTH ADAMS -- I was thrilled to learn recently that one of my all-time favorite musicians, an odd and brilliant man named Jeff Mangum, would be playing in North Adams. And at Mass MoCA of all places.
My interest was more than piqued.
After a few frantic clicks, I secured tickets shortly before they sold out. My excited thoughts then raced toward selecting which old friends I should to bring to the concert, and whether or not I could parlay this newspaper column into a chance to actually meet the enigmatic songwriter (Mario, Sydney, and Olya; Nope).
I didn't yet realize that this evening would be made all the more special, and that Mangum's performance would in fact be enhanced, due to Mass MoCA's prowess as a uniquely accommodating concert venue.
The concert was last Saturday, and the experience introduced me to a whole new side of MoCA. This was not the place of sunlit walkways and motionless groups of map-holding weekenders silently facing the same direction, but rather a legitimate concert venue chugging full steam ahead on the night of a sold out, standing-room-only show.
We arrived with time to spare in order to explore, chat, imbibe, and relax, as did hundreds of others. The museum's vast lobby was lit up and bustling with an all-ages crowd, some gussied up in their bohemian finest. There was a significant college-aged contingent but the average attendee may have been a decade older.
The gift shop, already a colorful hedge maze
Lickety Split Café was open, too, and serving a full menu of salads, sandwiches, burritos, ice cream, and a laundry list of snacks and meals. The dining area was roaring with activity, some circular tables surrounded by families having dinner, others by school chums downing beers. I spied a few couples sharing what must have been lovely date nights.
Two pop-up bars were located on either end of the lobby, facilitating a flow of pedestrians across the mall. One offered cocktails made with Berkshire Mountain Distillery liquor ($7) while the bar at the other end of the lobby, across from a mobbed table where band posters and t-shirts were being sold, poured wine and Berkshire Brewing Company beer (at a fair $5).
The lobby became a ghost town the second Mangum came out on stage. He'd amassed a devoted following in late 1990s as the front man of the band Neutral Milk Hotel. The band was critically lauded but never saw mainstream success. After they abruptly split in 1998, Mangum vanished from the public eye.
Having played just a handful of one-off gigs in the years since (few than the fingers on that hand), he is just now touring again.
For my friends and me, who'd been wishing for Mangum's return for over a decade, the anticipation bordered on mirthful hysteria.
The concert itself was so imbued with the museum's installation-friendly personality, one of walking through the art and engaging with it, that it seemed perfectly natural when members of the audience accompanied Mangum by belting out the horn arrangements, essential on the album versions of his songs but nowhere to be found on the large stage containing just the man and his acoustic guitar, while others contributed percussion.
I've never witnessed a musician crowd-source his backing band before, but then again I've never seen a concert at the Hunter Center before, either.
"I didn't know what to expect when I started touring again." he said while beaming. "And I'm very touched that you've all come to hear me play."
The Hunter Center is a massive cube and on Saturday the floor was cleared and a raised stage stood opposite the entrance. A few rows of bleachers were mercifully erected along the back wall for those of us who needed a break from standing but didn't want to miss a note.
A similar configuration is used during MoCA's regular dance parties, each of which has a designated theme and decor to match. The party on April 6 will be DJ'd by the universally lovable garage rock goofball King Khan.
The venue fits around 1,200 without chairs, but different events warrant alternate configurations.
Jodi Joseph, spokeswoman at MoCA, explained their approach to the Hunter Center as well as Club B-10, a separate venue located on the building's second story.
"We've done cabaret shows at the Hunter Center that sit 300, and dance performances sometimes work on the floor and the stage," she said. "And sometimes there's pillow seating, as it was when [famed turntablist] Kid Koala was here."
Club B-10 accommodates 250 people at cabaret-style tables with an in-house bar, creating a relaxed and casual atmosphere suited for more intimate entertainment. I saw Eugene Mirman perform standup comedy in the Club a few summers ago and, by the end the show, the entire audience was tearing up with laughter.
MoCA's Thursday night documentary film series is held here, as is the Up in the Club series, which aims to expose emerging talent.
If you go ...
Hunter Center and Club B-10 at Mass MoCA. 87 Marshall St, North Adams. (413) 662-2111. www.massmoca.org.
Cover: Varies from event to event. Student discounts are available.
Food: Lickety Split Café serves salads, sandwiches, deserts, and specials. The café is always open for the duration of an after-hours event.
Entertainment: Diverse music, theater, dance, film, and comedy events.
Our rating: 1 mug, Run away; 2 mugs, Yawn; 3 mugs, Cheers; 4 mugs, "I'll be back"; 5 mugs, "Round's on me!"
Your rating: Rate Mass MoCA as a concert venue at www.berkshireeagle.com/The413.