The Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour
Wexner Center, Columbus, October 19
by Kevin J. Elliott

Perhaps the only “surprise” of the night was the rare appearance of Neutral Milk Hotel’s reclusive genius Jeff Mangum, who played a singular acoustic version of “Engine” in the darkness of the crowd’s center. This past week has seen the now near-mythic figure emerge at various spots on the tour to no doubt drop jaws of anyone who was a fan of the halcyon daydreams this travelling circus sought to evoke. It was certainly mesmerizing, his voice easily the most recognizable cog in the collective’s imaginary machines, but that one brief spark (that emerged as most were headed for the door) overshadowed and almost diminished the three-hour show that preceded Mangum’s fanboy miracle.

I was wary as soon as the credits started rolling for the viewing of Major Organ and the Adding Machine, a multi-year in the making visual accompaniment to the Elephant Six credited album of the same name. The disorienting tape loops and art-school mis-en-scene of their quaint children’s movie was proof enough that much of what permeated from Athens back in the late ‘90s hasn’t aged all that well. I suppose I was hoping for at least an hour of Olivia Tremor Control hits (they were resigned to a few suites of skeletal versions of those hits), a half-hour of Elf Power’s heyday (they had about three songs, two of which were pulled from recent, mediocre, releases), and covers of the memorable ephemera that made up their universe (not an Apples in Stereo or Beulah tune to be found). What filled in the cracks were obviously moments that perpetuated the Elephant Six mantra of civic pride as the commune let their lesser members roll out one-offs that weren’t all that whimsical even in their day.

Maybe I overestimated the popularity of these bands or maybe my membership in the club wasn’t as strong as I remember, but bringing back Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t or 63 Crayons, or even the lengthy odes to the Gerbils is not my idea of a surprise. Please ignore the negativity. Those playful vibes couldn’t reduce the feat they achieved onstage (especially in the dozen body musical chairs they choreographed). As a psychedelic symposium of the then-and-now, it was a mirthful success. Curator and conductor Julian Koster of the Music Tapes exuded the enthusiasm needed to keep the festivities from sinking with props and banjos, warmth and singing saws. As the collective’s still youthful pied piper, he brought them all together and throughout the night assembled the musicians in various configurations with, though sometimes with questionable results.

Those that remained on the stage through those three hours were the ones that were responsible for all the wild sounds that made each E6 release such an event, likewise on this night. Multi-instrumentalist John Fernandez kept quizzing each song with clarinet, violin and bass. Full-time Elf Power member Laura Carter criss-crossed the stage on drums, trumpet, and vocals, and most present was the group’s stock brass Scott Spillane, who’s been tugging a tuba from city to city. But most magical was the singing saw theatrics of Koster, who used it for duets with OTC’s Bill Doss on a number of his syrupy McCartney-esque ballads and finally by coaxing Mangum out of hiding for the final moment that made all the B-sides worthwhile. If anything, this night proved that when Koster spoke last week of the great things to come from Athens, he wasn’t kidding around.