The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour
Monday, March 21
Better than: Seeing any band currently attached to any kind of micro-genre-related hype or anything remotely timely.
The titular amazement of Elephant 6’s second Holiday Surprise revue was discovering that the ten people onstage–drawn primarily from once or present members of Elf Power, the Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel–actually do work as a band. Horn player Scott Spillane has often bellowed a catchphrase about “the consummate professionalism of Elephant 6” when some element of the Beatlemaniac posse seemed on the verge of collapse. But during the first of three sold-out shows in New York (two at the Knitting Factory, one at Le Poisson Rouge), the band were consummate professionals, playing for nearly three hours, and staying engaged at every turn.
Though there were the usual rumors, the two-set performance was utterly democratic and totally fun. For once the group even had efficient ground control: giant setlists tacked on the walls of the stage to guide them through bass, horn, and second drum-kit switch-offs.
Escaping gentrification, both from broader indie rock feeding frenzies as well as more locally in their Athens homebase, the musicians of Elephant 6 have never quit their low-key psych-rock work. They were at their communal best Monday, joyously supporting each other’s songs with the power of 20 years worth of potluck dinners, an egalitarian emphasis that featured lower wattage E6 projects like Pete Erchick’s Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t and Scott Spillane’s Gerbils just as much as more renowned configurations like Will Hart and Bill Doss’s Olivia Tremor Control.
Throughout the night, the band restacked its wall of sound in subtly dramatic ways. Little surprises were a-plenty: Beach Boys barbershop and horn fanfares performed in the crowd, ecstatic covers of heroes like the Tall Dwarfs, Sun Ra, and the Kinks, new songs that sound like E6 classics (Spillane’s “As Time Passed” replete with three-part horns and four-part vocals), obscurities lovingly dusted off (Erchick’s equally fleshed-out “Karaoke Free”), and quixotic stories from Julian Koster. The banjo bowing Koster (solo project: Music Tapes) has spent much of the past few years staging elaborate living room tours, refining the guileless timing with which he delivers his absurdist shaggy dog yarns.
“One of my very first memories of Brooklyn, my great-grandfather took me out here,” he announced during a tuning break in the encore, keeping the show going where it once might have derailed. “We were actually staying here. And I woke up, and my great-grandfather wasn’t there. I was totally alone. I wasn’t supposed to go out alone, but I snuck out anyway. And I knew I was gonna get in really big trouble, and I walked so far, I walked all the way across Brooklyn to the water. And suddenly I saw him, out by the water, and I snuck up on him, and he didn’t see me, and he was smoking a cigar, and he blew a perfect smoke ring in the perfect shape of a polar bear. There was even a polar-bear shaped shadow on the ground.” The guitarists were done tuning.
Literally every dude on stage got a turn, including violinist/clarinetest/bassist (well, they’re all bassists) John Fernandes, whose debut CD-R–100 copies, art handdrawn by his son, already sold out–makes him pretty much the last of the crew to have his or her own solo project. The mostly imaginary Elephant 6 Recording Company has never been much for marketing, but they sure know how to get their new artists in front of an audience.
Critical Bias: Currently awaiting arrival of part of the touring party for couch/floor/guest-bed crashing.
Overheard: “It’s sort of a poncho, it’s sort of an afghan, and it looks like it’s got a Steal Your Face sewn into it” — trying to describe the fashion choice of Bryan (side project: The Late B.P. Helium) Poole.
Random Notebook Dump: In other eras, this is the kind of stuff that ends up on Mutant Sounds or the Acid Archives book.