Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour @ Round Barn 10.23.08

Andrew and Julian in the masks that started the set

As you stumble through life, there are going to be a few instances where the things you romanticize become the things you experience. Whether it’s a first kiss, trip to Europe or new job, things in reality rarely ever measure up to how you picture them in your heart and head.

But sometimes… sometimes they’re better.

For me, seeing the four founding members of the Elephant 6 Recording Company play music with a dozen or so of their closest friends is one such thing that I would say I’ve romanticized. It, like most things we inflate in our minds, seemed unattainable; Neutral Milk Hotel stopped touring before I was a teenager, the Olivia Tremor Control disbanded before I was in high school and the Apples in Stereo… well, I live in town with Robert, so seeing him play is actually quite a frequent occurrence. But to see the kind of show that happened on Thursday, that’s just something I consider myself supremely lucky to have seen.

Julian Koster, Scott Spilane and John Fernandes

My Elephant 6 experience started like something from a movie. After the band finished soundchecking, the speakers started playing the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” and hundreds of music lovers of all ages poured through the doors.

Later, as I waited for the show to start, I realized I could see my old dormitory tower through the doors of the Round Barn. In a movie that would be the part where I realize that I wound never have started my site if I hadn’t come to Lexington, reflect on how this was an event that could only happen there as well and realize that it’s a wonderful city. As it was, I just thought it was kind of cool that I could see across town.

The Round Barn was laid out about as perfect as you could want for such an informal, fun show. The crowd circled around the band, which meant only a fourth could enjoy the Major Organ film the way it was intended. But it made for an ideal situation for the performance. Two sparse drum kits faced each other, guitars were amped up on one side of them and three microphones for the horn section were on the other. At either pole was a keyboard and usually a tambourine. Performers ranged from solo (Robert Schneider playing “the Afternoon”) to over a dozen (everyone on “I Have Been Floated”).

Will C. Hart and Bill Doss played some Olivia Tremor Control songs

The informality of the show might have frustrated a small portion of the audience, but for me, it was the show’s greatest strength. Seeing the interactions between musicians that have been friends for a decade or more was enough alone to warm my heart. Lexington’s walking smile Robert Schneider was the ringleader of the happiness, standing off to the side of the stage and dispensing hugs to his friends who went on and off stage. But it extended on stage as well — every one of them wore giant smiles (especially Julian, who often had me fearing that the corners of his grin would touch at the back of his head) and often embraced each other after or even during songs.

I confess that in all the madness, I was most excited to see the Olivia Tremor Control perform. I had asked Bill earlier this year if it was likely that I’d ever see them reunite and was basically told not to expect it. Maybe he just wanted to surprise me when they played my hometown six months later.

We were treated to most of my favorite OTC tunes. “I Have Been Floated” started in the first half of the set with just Pete and John before the entirety of the Elephant 6 crew came out to sing along to the chorus. It was Jeff Mangum’s part on the record and it marked his first appearance at the show. Even though my greedy side had come to expect a performance from Jeff, that chorus singing on “I Have Been Floated” would have seemed like something out of a dream to me a month ago. And yes, it was phenomenal to hear live. The Olivia Tremor Control are a band that benefits from headphone listenings, but they get to throw extra energy into the performance to make up for the lack of stereo sound live. If I got to see a full set of their songs, I just might have to retire from concerts for a while.

In addition to “I Have Been Floated,” we also got “Sleepy Company,” “A Sunshine Fix,” “Love Athena,” “No Growing,” “Shaving Spiders,” “Sylvan Screen,” “NYC-25” (with just Bill and Julian) and “The Opera House.” When they started into “Opera House” during the encore, Bill’s guitar cut in and out during the memorable opening riff, at which point my mind filled with visions of them cutting the song and I’m pretty sure I shouted out “NO!” Luckily they jiggled some cords and launched back into it.

Andrew Rieger of Elf Power

The other powerful moment of the pre-encore set came from Elf Power. They got four songs: “Spiral Stairs,” “Old Familiar Scene,” one I forget and their classic “The Arrow Flies Close.” Seeing a group of old friends sing a song about the coming to terms with your own mortality grabbed me in a way that song never has before and nearly shook a tear out of me. It’s a powerful song that I’ll probably never be able to hear the same way again.

And, as a special Lexington treat, we also got a performance from the Apples in Stereo, which featured Robert Schnieder, John Ferguson, Bill Doss and Hilarie Sidney (drumming with the Apples for the first time since Popfest 2006) playing one of my favorite tunes of theirs, “Stream Running Over.” They also did “Skyway” later, which the audience was happy to sing along to.

Two other notables were Julian’s Music Tapes songs, which have never sounded better, and Nana Grizol, who I now regret not following for years. If a song I didn’t know blew me out of the water, you can bet it was from Nana Grizol — mostly because I knew none of his songs and they all blew me out of the water. In a set of songs by my favorite bands, the Music Tapes and Nana Grizol used my non-expectations to completely wow me. Plus, Julian is one of the happiest, hoppiest people when he plays.

Robert Schneider playing “The Afternoon” solo

So the main two hours of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour were among the best two hours I’ve spent in my concertgoing life. How do you end a show like that? With something that’s nothing short of a gift.

As the band played the Circulatory System’s “Forever,” everyone on the tour came out to sing along the closing line: “We will live forever and you know it’s true… know it’s true.” The crowd picked up the chant slowly at first, but almost immediately after Jeff Mangum waved us on. After we’d proved capable of holding it for a little while, Jeff told us to follow them outside.

A few hundred people followed Jeff outside — singing all the way — and circled around him, Scott Spilane and Julian Koster when they finally stopped. After a minute, Jeff motioned for us to get quieter and eventually stop. Then Scott took up his trumpet and Julian his accordian to play the first Neutral Milk Hotel song I’d imagine most everyone in the crowd had heard in person. “The Fool” opened up surrounded by friends and strangers who had become friends. Spilane’s trumpet playing was perfect in that it wasn’t. He was clearly playing from the heart, and it was beautiful.

Next was, as I said, something that was truly a gift.

As Jeff grabbed his guitar and began to strum, I looked around me and saw Bill, Robert and John all standing near — this was clearly something special; it hasn’t even lost its magic for the band who has been touring with him.

Jeff Mangum’s performance of “Engine” was the exact meeting of a romanticized ideal and reality. I didn’t cry, embrace my fellow audience members or faint, but rather I felt it in a part of my heart that’s never been touched during a concert.

Jeff has a powerful voice that sounds as if it could fall apart at any moment. It’s truly beautiful. And to hear “Engine” sang in the cool Kentucky air was something so touching that it will forever frustrate me to try and put in words. As I said before, it was a gift.

Thank you Jeff, and thank you Elephant 6.

Robert and Jeff embrace as the crowd sings him “Happy Birthday” after the show

More photos below…

Jeff watching Scott and Julian begin to play “The Fool”

Jeff playing “Engine”

Will, Andrew and Bill in front of the six foot tall metronome

Julian, the man responsible for the entire tour

Will and Bill

John Fernandes played about every instrument on stage

Jeff singing on the Circulatory System’s “Forever

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