Friday, March 25, 2011

Elephant Six Collective Brings Spring to Philly!

Julian Koster of Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel magic crafting.
By Tom Faix

The internationally renowned Elephant Six Collective treated a sold-out Philadelphia crowd to some two and a half hours of material spanning their vast musical family tree last night at the First Unitarian Church on their Holiday Surprise Tour. From college kids who drove all the way from Baltimore to those who were just barely old enough to get into the shows when they first started playing, the audience acted as a testament to the diversity reflected in the music itself. The tour’s repertoire draws about 50 songs from the E6 catalog, averaging about 35 per night. Throughout the show ensemble members shuffled to and from the stage to created arrangements varying from a several-guitar based wall-of-sound to the sparse presence of a lone bowed banjo.

Things got rolling with a rendition of Major Organ and the Adding Machine’s “When Father Was Away on Business” that started at the sound-booth; Will Cullen Hart, Bryan Poole, and Andrew Reiger serenaded their way to the darkened stage to meet with a brightening punch of horn and drum from Laura Carter, Scott Spillane, and Derek Almstead, among others. In addition to favorites, such as the Olivia Tremor Control’s “Hideaway” and the Gerbils’ “Glue”, a few cover versions slipped into the mix. Notably, OTC’s Will Cullen Hart dedicated their take on The Minutemen’s “Party with Me Punker” to the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. During an intermission, multi-instrumentalist John Fernandes added value to fans’ admission by performing a highly textural violin solo at a moment’s decision.

Set two started in a similar fashion as the first with Poole (a.k.a. The Late B.P. Helium) making his way into the center of the audience with a large, paper wrapped hoop (acting as the moon). Music Tapes’ Julian Koster then took to the mic and conducted an audience participation game in which a large snowman he fabricated himself would “bring Spring to Philadelphia this year”. This translated to a lucky fan shooting a “snowball” through the “moon” and winning a pick at any non-original song in the world for the collective to perform (even if they didn’t know it). The winner selected “Bad Brain Attitude” by Bad Brains, which came in crash-course punk style, Hart acting as H.R.

During a Gerbils block, Scott Spillane paid tribute to late band-member Will Westbrook. To start the song “Lucky Girl” a sample of Westbrook’s playing from the album version’s intro came on loud and clear and transitioned to a spirited run through of what Spillane called a “pale resemblance” to what it used to be like[with Westbrook]. Peter Erchick highlighted his project Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t toward the end of the show with a series of inspired songs drawn from his new, hand-made disc, including “Nothing for Sunday” and the soulful “Days Remain”.

E6 sent fans off with an epic cover of Sun Ra’s “Enlighten". The players brewed instrumentally on stage for several minutes, then breaking into a call and response with the audience as the perpetually barefoot Hart stood at the back of the crowd shouting a lead while other players made their way back with horns, saws, and drums alike; the high emphasis on audience interaction serving as a realization of the enigmatic, creative ethos of the troupe.

Elf Power's Laura Carter "Enlightening" the crowd.
After a night like this there’s not much more a music lover could ask for. Still, shouts of “where’s Jeff [Mangum]” pervaded the assembly. To this, Koster responded on stage, “[he’s] in New York”, effectively resting rumors that Mangum would once again turn up as the Holiday Surprise on this tour as he had on several dates in 2008. Even more, fans have been speculating as to whether the concurrent performance of Mangum with A Hawk and a Hacksaw (featuring former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes) at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Minehead, UK will culminate in a proper reunion of the now legendary group. Though it cannot be completely ruled out, Spillane (who played horn in NMH and co-composed the classic piece “The Fool”) is by no means certain that he will attend or perform at the festival. What ATP-goers will get, however, is a peek of what’s ahead for Olivia Tremor Control.

Almstead, who is helping with engineering and percussion on the forthcoming record, confirmed that new Olivia material will be performed later this year. At this point it is unclear as to whether the new record will be a full-length album or an EP, signs point to something being ready by then. OTC’s Fernandes also released a solo disc on this tour and while copies allotted for sale on tour have already sold out, he assures that further copies will become available through his Cloud Recordings shortly.

On a related note, Orange Twin, the label and conservancy founded and operated by E6 members, recently purchased a low-frequency FM radio license. Currently they are seeking funding and personnel with a background in radio engineering to assist them with this project. All interested persons in the Athens, GA area are advised to contact Laura Carter via Orange Twin about this.

Follow this link to my recording of the Elephant Six live in Phoenix, AZ from March 3, 2011 at the Duce!

1 comment:

  1. Man, who wrote this is amazing. I sense that this group of musicians are going to be successful in their future as long as they relentlessly perform with innovative music