Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour
Bottom Lounge; Chicago, IL

Before we begin, let it be stated that Jeff Mangum did perform at the Chicago show. But that will be discussed later. Let us discuss the rest of the show first before we get there.

Clearly, one purpose of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour (appropriately named after an Olivia Tremor Control song) is to show off the Elephant 6 film, Major Organ and the Adding Machine. The film was shown first, with a small portion of the crowd taking a vast section of the floorspace seated. I won't go into detail about the short film -- not only to avoid spoiling it for the rest of you, but also because I didn’t have a complete grasp of what was going on in the film -- but it was quite entertaining. It was particularly satisfying to see prodigal son Kevin Barnes getting attacked by a gorilla, which was further emphasized by the “renouncement” from the Holiday Surprise group that denied them any involvement concerning a sponsored after-party, saying they hadn’t “sold out.”

After the film concluded, the show truly began. And let's be clear: the “Holiday Surprise Tour” is not just made up of The Music Tapes' Julian Koster plus a few others and the occasional Mangum appearance. The bulk of the Holiday Surprise featured more well-known members of Elephant 6 coming out in full glory: most of The Olivia Tremor Control (Will Cullum Hart, Pete Erchick, Bill Doss, and John Fernandes), Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger, and Scott Spillane of The Gerbils, among others. Even Static, the ’50s television that served as a vocalist on The Music Tapes' first album, joined in with a Santa hat, as well as the 7-Foot-Tall Metronome.

Multi-instrumentalism was the rule of the night, with every E6er jumping from instrument to instrument, from guitars to two drum sets to two different synths to even a set of brass instruments, complete with Spillane’s tuba. The only exception was Fernandes, who rarely (if ever) strayed from his clarinet. The band’s constant shifting allowed for some interesting banter, which was set to a 45 of birds chirping to a waltz between songs, including a bit on the effects of the year 2001 on people. Another interesting moment was when Bill Doss did a seemingly random military salute.

Of course, one wonders about the purpose of the actual show. There was rarely a focus to it, and the structure was even confirmed by the Holiday Surprise crew to be loose. Koster called the show “sides” at one point, due to another film (a filmstrip slideshow), but there wasn't a distinct difference between the two “sides.” Which is not to say it was a bad thing: Every significant band in the collective had a song in, from Olivia Tremor Control’s “I Have Been Floated” and “The Opera House,” to Elf Power’s “The Arrow Flies Close,” to The Music Tapes “Songs of Oceans Falling.” Side-projects were also represented, with Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t’s “Karaoke Free.” Even Schneider managed to eke in an Apples in Stereo song or two. In a bit of a surprise, they closed out the main set the same way as the film: Major Organ and the Adding Machine’s beautifully haunting “Life Form (Transmission Received).” The night could have ended here, and it would have been an acceptable show, despite only a Mangum cameo at that point.

Then came the aftershow, or “side 3” as Koster called it. And things got weird.

They realized the extra time they had would allow room for requests, which included the aforementioned “The Opera House,” The Gerbils’ “Glue,” and a few others. A guitar was forced upon Robert Schneider, so he played “Skyway” with a small degree of trouble. The audience, however, was okay with it. Throughout this part of the show, there were several false endings, which sometimes even confused the house engineers. A sense of drag was felt at this point.

Which leads us to Jeff Mangum. No matter how little you cared for the reclusive man of mythos, you could sense from the crowd that some of them only came to see even the slightest bit of him. Not just a reassurance that he was still around and playing, but that he was still Jeff Mangum, as the man they envisioned. And they were very kind and polite about it: While there were a few calls for Mangum to come out, there was not a single Neutral Milk Hotel song request. Even without him, Koster and crew held out to create a great, memorable show. Yet, the crowd would no doubt be disappointed, if not angry about the lack of the romanticized hero.

But he did make his presence felt throughout the night. At first, Mangum only briefly appeared at the end of an Olivia Tremor Control song, belting out the closing lines with the rest of the Holiday Surprise crew (similar to his first recent appearance in “The Arrow Flies Close” in New York). The crowd weren't particularly responsive, but they did start singing with more conviction. The rest of the main set seemed to hint and nag at Mangum’s return to the stage, from a poet commenting on “liking that Jeff Mangum” before reciting a piece on Elephant 6, to a false start by Koster after introducing Static the Television as someone “who hasn’t been in Chicago in 8 million or 9 years.” Even Spillane and Koster’s rendition of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The Fool” in the middle of the audience seemed to be a call-out. Yet he still did not surface like he did before.

Finally, in the aftershow, after Koster concluded an unnerving rendition of The Music Tapes’ “Manifest Destiny,” he went towards the side of the stage and called out for some people. Several came back, including Mangum, all doing the haunting closer to Circulatory System’s debut, “Forever.” During this rendition, which Koster suggested as a sing-along, Mangum did something incredible: he raised his arm to the crowd, gesturing them to sing louder. While previous shows suggested some acknowledgment of the audience's presence, this is the first time the man -- who many say was a victim of his fans -- interacted with the crowd. This is surely one of the defining moment of this entire tour.

In fact, not only did the crowd respond by signing louder, but they kept singing on as the group finished. Meanwhile, Mangum grabbed a guitar and followed Koster into the middle of the crowd to close the night with the Neutral Milk Hotel B-side “Engine.” He performed “Engine” at another show recently, but it felt like, this time, he was truly addressing the crowd. Something struck deep into many people. The audience was the loudest it had ever been. Here's a video from YouTube:

Afterward, the audience maintained their poise, letting Mangum through to backstage when he finished. He waved to the crowd before leaving. And as Spillane walked back out to thank the crowd, everyone felt at ease; the crowd was clearly full of gratitude.

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