Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour
Friday, March 4
"Can you turn up the toy piano?" is not a request many soundmen get, or that many bands make, so it's probably a good thing that the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour brought their own technician all the way from Athens, Ga.
Stalwarts of the late-'90s and early-'00s college radio scene, this tour (the second of its type) swung through Phoenix last night, bringing members of bands like the Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, The Music Tapes and Of Montreal together at the improbable venue the Duce -- how often does a band get a chance to play on a boxing ring?
Nine p.m. saw the frontmen of most of the groups assemble inconspicuously in a circle in the middle of the crowd and start up an a cappella rendition of the Major Organ & the Adding Machine tune "When Father's Away on Business" to announce the beginning of the show. Traipsing through the sizable crowd (200? 250?), the group launched into a varied set that suffered a little at first from the Duce's inhospitable steel-brick-and-glass acoustics but overcame minimal limitations with enthusiasm. The E6 bands have always been more muscular and louder in their live incarnations than on album, and last night's show was no different, and a good reminder that while the pop psychedelia of the '60s delivered lots of inspiration to these bands, there's a heavier and more guitar-centric side to that too, and time spent listening to the 13th Floor Elevators and T. Rex was not wasted. Hell, multi-instrumentalist John Fernandes snapped his clarinet in half during one vigorous jam!
Tunes were varied, which gave the night a sometimes disjointed feel, but in a familial revue-style setting the crowd wasn't complaining. The group tore through tunes by the Olivia Tremor Control ("Holiday Surprise 1 2 3," "Hideaway," "Define a Transparent Dream," "NYC-25"), Elf Power ("The Separating Fault," "An Old Familiar Scene"), Circulatory System ("Woodpecker Greeting Worker Ant").
The group didn't just play the hits, though (insofar as any cult-favorite music collective whose place in the consciousness of discerning music fans has remained constant but peaked maybe a decade ago). Digging deep into the E6 catalog and delivering a number of songs from the members' individual projects, the group setting offered a cohesive sound tying together numbers like "Karaoke Free" and "Nothing For Sunday" by Pete Erchick's Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't with The Late BP Helium's "Candy for Everyone" -- during which you can probably guess what horn player Laura Carter was tossing into the audience. Carter also took the lead vocals on a cover of the Kinks' "Alcohol," one of a handful of covers of the night (The Beatles' "Octopus's Garden," Tall Dwarfs' "Nothings Going to Happen").
Maybe one of the biggest surprises of the night was the oomph and verve given to the songs of former Neutral Milk Hotel hornman Scott E. Spillane, who's the frontman for The Gerbils. He introduced the first song by his band with a recording of Will Westbrook, the guitarist who passed away a few years ago, and though none of the Gerbils' other regular members were on this tour, songs like the sweet "Lucky Girl," the yearning "Glue" and especially the apocalyptically energized "The White Sky" -- off the amazing and criminally underappreciated second Gerbils album The Battle of Electricity -- found rousing new life and overwhelming approval from the crowd, thanks both to Spillane's piercing, bombastic voice and the sonic push of the full E6 collective.
The Holiday Surprise Tour closed with a cover of Sun Ra's "Enlightenment," with the E6 gang going adding the chanted lyrics that became a staple of the Arkestra's live sets. Spillane was the first to leave the stage, his weathered Sousaphone still honking. The rest of the band followed him, and the audience followed them, and the show ended back where it started, out among the crowd, though by this point the group had paraded its way out of the building and into the Duce's parking lot, where under starry Arizona skies and desolate South Phoenix industrial husks the tunes wrapped up and a lot of thank yous were exchanged. There was more that went on -- singing-saw solos, mechanized musical towels, a giant snowman that provided a game of skill for audience members -- but hey, save some details for the next Holiday Surprise. The group heads up the West Coast now, with five back-to-back nights of sold-out shows.
Last Night: Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise at the Duce
The Crowd: From young indie kids who'd driven down from Prescott to former college-radio deejays (now with baby strollers), from folks' grandmas and old friends to people who just came into the Duce for a bite or a drink.
Personal bias: I lived in Athens for more than a decade before moving to Phoenix, so I'm conditioned to think that this is what a proper night out at a show should sound like.
Random Notebook Dump: This would never be written about another show: "The snowman game ended with the explosion of the bulb held by BP Helium."