While many spring breakers explored the beaches of Florida or the caves of Kentucky, I had two cavities filled and then took my bag to New York City to see two long-awaited shows from the Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour.
For those of you who don’t know these animals, Elephant Six is a recording collective for bands like Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH), of Montreal and Olivia Tremor Control. Members of the groups tend to bounce around and form other bands within the collective – blending into a melting pot of a shit-ton of great sub-bands like Circulatory System, The Music Tapes and Elf Power. Unfortunately, most of these bands have either broken up or stopped going on tour, so the Holiday Surprise Tour brought together certain members of the collective to perform songs from many of the bands.
Show number one was at The Knitting Factory on March 22. It was a small bar in Brooklyn but the sold-out show hardly filled the room. Maybe this was on purpose to create a more intimate setting. See here’s the thing: the members of the collective are more like people who you just want to be friends with, share a beer with and play a song. That intimacy they bring through their music and general appearance was reflected at the start of the show when the 12 or so guys (and one girl) stood behind the crowd singing a capella, “You’re going on a trip / your mind is not quite fit / your brain circuitry’s abnormalities have brought you this…” They kept their chant going until a loud burst of a tuba went off from the stage and everyone finally went onstage.
Their first set included tracks from Olivia Tremor Control, The Gerbils, Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t and others. Many of the members alternated instruments and vocals, even if they weren’t a part of the song from the original band.
It really was just beautiful. So many of my favorite musicians, all on one stage, sharing these songs with us. Being a fan of most of these bands for so long, it felt amazing to finally be able to see them perform.
After their first set, they played a short film about a hen whose fellow hen friend dies and it wants to give it a proper burial. It was weird, quirky and typical Elephant Six.
The second set began with an unusual game; a huge snowman stood at the corner of the stage and NMH/The Music Tapes’ Julian Koster explained that spring needed to come to New York City and the only way to make it happen was to help the snowman throw a snowball at the moon. This was done by throwing a small, white ball with a lacrosse-like stick into the “moon.” Koster let a few audience members try, but they all failed. Later in the show, another contestant finally pierced the moon. The prize was not only spring coming to New York City but also the contestant’s choice of any song outside of the collective for the band to perform. He chose The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Thieves,” which was done quite nicely. It was things like this that kept the energy high and the three hours an endless amount of fun.
One of the best parts of the show was Koster’s performance. The collective would play together for some songs, but also break up into smaller or individual groups for others. Koster, who plays the singing-saw and banjo, among others, took my breath away. On one song, he told a long story about his Romanian circus ancestry who performed an act where they would pull dehydrated European cities from their mouths (imagination is key here). He said the only way to spread the code of the act was through song, so he took his banjo and played it with a violin bow. It sounded like an entire orchestra captivating the crowd and leaving me speechless. YouTube it.
After a second set and long encore, the group finished with Sun Ra’s “Enlightenment,” coming back into the crowd and continuously repeating the chant, with everyone singing along.
The second night, at Le Poisson Rouge, was very similar to the first, minus the film. The kid who broke the moon requested a Black Sabbath song, and I giddily got Koster’s autograph.
My only disappointment of the show would be NMH, or the lack there of. The flier for the show said they would play songs from the band, but they didn’t either night. Plus, many Elephant Sixers thought the mysterious Jeff Mangum (NMH vocalist/guitarist/writer) would perform at both shows. He didn’t. Mangum has been keeping to himself for years, especially after the success of NMH, but has slowly begun to show up again in the music world. He was there, however, (and stood next to me for almost 10 minutes), but didn’t surprise the audience with a song.
Regardless, the shows were incredible. In the end, I really just wish I could hop on their tour and hang out with them. Although they’re all well into their ‘30s and ‘40s, I think we’d be great friends.