The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour at the Bottom Lounge
Chicago, October 21, 2008
Several songs into the encore, I wormed my way in and a lot of people had split by then, so I had an okay spot. Jeff Mangum finally came back out with Julian Koster, Robert Schneider, and those Olivia Tremor Control dudes and sang an acoustic, meditative chant that went, “We will live forever and you know it’s true, you know it’s true.” I got the first minute of it on video.
It was nice. Pretty and hopeful. And to see those dudes up there with their arms around each other was genuinely touching. They all seemed happy to be there.
They got the crowd singing along, and then they walked off the stage with the crowd still singing. They walked into the middle of the crowd, right by me. I could’ve grabbed Mangum by the ears and yelled, “Where the fuck have you BEEN, man?” But instead I just stood there and said, “Woo.” But when Robert Schneider, the producer of all the best recordings from that whole gang, walked by, I leaned in and said, “Thanks for all the great records.” He smiled and shouted back, “Yeah!”
We were all still singing, “We will live forever and you know it’s true, you know it’s true.” And then we faded out. And then Jeff started singing “Engine” with Julian accompanying him. I was four people back from them. Robert Schneider touched my shoulder and let me stand in front of him, which was extremely sweet of him. The song was powerful and great. As moving a performance as anything I’ve seen.
Definitely worth sticking around for. But here’s the thing: had I not known that Mangum had done this encore at previous shows, would I have stuck around? Probably not. Three hours is a lot of “friend rock” to sit through in order to witness one fantastic three-minute performance. Especially when they’re not my friends.
My big complaint about the whole show is that these guys were just a bunch of pals, being goofy and doing their thing for each other’s amusement. I didn’t get into the E6 thing at the time because back in the 90s I had my own group of friends, making music and being goofy and hanging out together. The E6 gang was clearly more ambitious and less self-sabotaging than my group my friends and their bands. But there’s not a huge difference in quality or consistency.
With one enormous exception: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel.
That album is an amazing work of art. Better than anything released by any of my friends. And better than anything released by any of Jeff Mangum’s friends, too, unfortunately, no matter how nice of guys they seem to be. More power to them, of course. It looked they were all having a good time. Unfortunately, the music wasn’t that great.
Johnny Loftus summed it up afterwards: “It’s like they hold Mangum out like a carrot. I don’t know if that’s how they really see it or not; I’m sure it isn’t, actually. But it seems like that to me after watching the evening largely go off the rails. Strong beginning, but then it was just jingle jangles and white people reverently rewarding each others’ pleasantries. That reverence is tied right back into this allowance by the fans to let Mangum be this enigmatic genius. They WANT him to be that, because they want to be able to deify something about indie rock, this form of music that so many kids fall in love with in college. They want to validate it, and he’s a great vessel for that.”
As they do with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, indie geeks handle Mangum and the whole E6 posse with kid gloves, afraid to call a spade a spade. We all want so badly for everything to just be good. But then we stand there for two and a half hours of “only kinda sorta good,” as Loftus put it. And it’s true. If you have to make yourself try to like something, it’s probably just not that great. Sure, some things take time to sink in, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We give shit the benefit of the doubt because somebody involved was at one time associated with something truly great. And that’s silly.
I’m a huge fan of Neutral Milk Hotel and a casual fan of the other Elephant 6 projects. I own and enjoy both Gerbils albums, and I’ve used my emusic subscription to download a bunch of Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power stuff. But I don’t know the difference between Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. Regardless, you shouldn’t be required to be a huge fan to enjoy a show. A great show can win people over who’ve never heard of you. This was a show that had its moments, but was certainly not great.
With all the lineup changes, the pacing was bound to be sketchy. They played a silly slideshow video in the middle that looked like something your stoner friends in college would’ve done for fun. I appreciate D/I/Y and whimsy as much as the next guy, but in the era of MySpace and YouTube, do we really need to pay to see under-rehearsed amateurism anymore? No, we don’t.
The 7 Foot Tall Metronome, on the other hand, was as cool as any prop I’d ever seen, and I was disappointed it was only used on one song. Static the Television was equally underutilized.
Not, of course, as underutilized as Jeff Mangum, who before his encore finale only appeared onstage for about twenty seconds during the end of “I Have Been Floated.” Why? Shyness? Or is it deliberate reclusiveness? He was there all night, so why not just come out and at least play some guitar with your old friends every once in a while? He’s a grown man. To treat him like a fragle little puppy is condescending and preposterous.
Someone who got onstage even less than Mangum last night was Jeremy Barnes, who was in attendance but did not perform. I first saw him at the bar when Loftus and I stepped out of the music room for a breath of air. Between getting hassled by Vodka Girls, I couldn’t keep from staring at one of my favorite drummers of my generation. His fabulous moustache barely disguises his face that appears to have not aged. Hungarian music must be the fountain of youth.
To recap: last night at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago, pretty much everyone involved in the recording of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was gathered together in the same room for the first time in god knows how long. Ten years? Apologists will come up with plenty of excuses, but the fact that they did not come together onstage and perform as Neutral Milk Hotel is nothing short of a squandered opportunity. Not only that, it’s just inconsiderate and rude. What’s the problem?
Now if someone tells me there was an afterparty later where they played a whole Neutral Milk Hotel set together, I’m going to be very, very angry.