It was a magical and historic night for indie-rock. For the first time in more than a decade, the founding members of the widely adored and influential Elephant 6 Collective, including Robert Schneider (The Apples in Stereo) and the famously reclusive Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), took the stage together for a sprawling live performance. The group, which featured 15 artists from 10 different bands, served up more than three hours of joyous, psych-tinged singalongs under the glow of the rainbow-colored lights at Chicago's Bottom Lounge on Oct. 21, 2008.
The Elephant 6 Collective "is definitely back," tour organizer Julian Koster (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Music Tapes) said after the show. "Somehow, everything's happening for us now. I don't know why we were ever interrupted, and why all this is happening now. But we're all just so happy. It just seems like a fact now. [Elephant 6] is back."
After forming in the early '90s and releasing a number of acclaimed albums, The Elephant 6 Collective — a large family of likeminded bands — eventually dissolved, as members moved on to other projects or went on indefinite hiatus. Though loose configurations of the group have given a handful of one-off performances since, most recently in 2005, the current tour marks a new beginning.
"It feels like it did in 1996," Will Cullen Hart (The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System) said, referring to the collective's most exciting and productive period.
The Chicago performance began with a short film by Joey Foreman and Eric Harris called Major Organ and the Adding Machine. A silent movie scored by the E6 Orchestra, it's a strange tale about two children who find metallic hats in a forest, put them on and disappear (with an audible "pop") to another dimension, where they help a giant baker gather ingredients for a magical pie.
As the film ended, a group of E6 artists — the first of many different configurations — took the stage, wearing paper-cut animal masks, to open with the Major Organ and the Adding Machine song "His Mister's Whistles."
Throughout the night, the E6 members shifted lineups and rotated through one another's songs, including some of the most popular cuts from The Gerbils, The Apples in Stereo, Nana Grizol, The Music Tapes, The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System and Elf Power. It was an epic and exhaustive set aimed at sating the wide-eyed fans who'd been waiting for years to see the group perform.
Before the concert, the rumor mill was spinning wildly about a possible performance by Neutral Milk Hotel and the band's gifted but elusive frontman, Jeff Mangum. Mangum stepped onstage briefly during previous shows in New York and Pittsburgh as part of the current tour, and he popped up again in Chicago, first during a mostly a cappella group-singalong version of the Olivia Tremor Control song "I Have Been Floated."
Mangum's appearances onstage were few and brief, and he mostly stuck to helping out on other members' songs. But he closed the night with a version of the Neutral Milk Hotel song "Engine." After getting the audience to sing, "We will live forever and you know it's true" (from the Circulatory System song "Forever"), repeating the line over and over, Mangum stepped out into the audience with his guitar. As he sang and played, with Koster accompanying him on saw, Mangum was barely audible and impossible to see. But just knowing he was there seemed enough to cast a blissful glow over the audience.
Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes attended the Chicago concert, but did not perform. It was the first time all four original members of the band had gathered together for a show since their tour for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea ended in 1998. Though some in the audience pleaded for the band to do something from the album, Mangum exited quietly after "Engine," leaving hopes for a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion hanging in the air.
"We've been spending some really nice time together," Koster said of his former Neutral Milk Hotel bandmates. "I don't think any of us knows what's going to happen. But we never did, and that's probably the best indication that something really nice might happen. We're all awfully excited to see each other, and we're all excited to make things together. So who knows what can happen?"
On this tour: Suzanne Allison (63 Crayons), Laura Carter (Elf Power), Robbie Cucchiaro (The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel), Bill Doss (The Olivia Tremor Control), Pete Erchick (The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System), John Fernandes (The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System), Nesey Gallons, Will Cullen Hart (The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System), Eric Harris (The Music Tapes), Theodore J. Hilton (Nana Grizol), Charlie Johnston (63 Crayons), Julian Koster (The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel), Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), Andrew Reiger (Elf Power), Robert Schneider (The Apples in Stereo) and Scott Spillane (The Gerbils, Neutral Milk Hotel).