It’s hard to describe Elephant 6. Yes, they’re a music collective out of Athens, Georgia comprised of countless musicians and even more instruments, but they’re also more than that. They’re a modern-day carnival caravan bringing exotic sounds and strange delights wherever they roam. And Kilby Court was the perfect place to set up shop.
Present were members of Elf Power, Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t, Olivia Tremor Control and the Music Tapes, among others. It’s kind of hard to keep track: one musician described his band membership as “whoever will have me.” In total, 14 musicians set up shop in the Kilby shed, doubling the usual size of the stage. Their powers combined, powerful walls of sound were built and sent crashing down again and again over the audience. The shed may have been only half full but the audience pushed in closer, inebriated moths pushing nearer to the ear-splitting flame.
One of the many, many great things about Elephant 6 is that their set never gets old. They have a whole collective’s worth of music to draw on and take full advantage of it. Highlights included favorites from Elf Power, John Fernandes’ solo violin on “Song of the Monkey,” a wonderful new track from Pete Erhlick (Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t’s “Nothing for Sunday,” which should be played during a meandering, hung-over bike ride) and Julian Koster’s haunting Romanian folk song. The latter might be a fake, but Koster’s storytelling and musicianship make it true. In general, the members of the collective have incredible agility. During their indie-pop standbys, they are tight and unified. Then they become a joyfully cacophonous experiment. Then they will become folky and fiddle-ridden and mournful. Then they get happy again, play rock songs and jump around a lot. It’s the best emotional roller coaster you could ask for.
Now, a word about the instruments, because they are another amazing feature of this show. There are, according to the band, 30 or 40 onstage, or more than there are actual songs to play. There’s the typical rock stuff (guitars, bass, keys, drums), there’s the not-so-typical rock stuff (trumpets, tuba [Scott Spillane, pictured], banjo, clarinet) and then there’s the utterly weird and fantastic. This last category includes a sousaphone, flugelhorn, bass clarinet, toy piano and a saw. That’s right, a saw, played with a bow and a precision I didn’t know was possible by Koster. All this is done through the magic of their resident genius sound god, Dan Korn, who also plays drums. Multi-talented is an understatement, and that goes for the whole group.
And, finally, the reason all of Salt Lake should have been at Kilby Court this Friday night: audience participation. Elephant 6 really, really wants you to have a good time. Not just that guy dancing at the front or the crazy teens skanking in the back: you. So what do they do? They talk to you- directly to you. And the guy next to you. They throw candy out of a hollowed-out pumpkin while playing B.P. Helium’s “Candy for Everyone.” Their encore ends with a mini-parade through the crowd and out to the fire pit while playing Sun Ra’s “Enlightenment” (for those who don’t know the song, they invited us to their spaceworld. I suggest we go). And they brought spring to Salt Lake City.
What does that mean, you ask? Well, as Koster explained during the intermission, the snowman spends all winter throwing snowballs at the moon. When he hits the moon, spring comes and the snowman can finally melt and be at peace. Contestants were invited to take the snowman’s hand and fling the giant snowball at the moon, represented by a paper hoop. The prize was the coming of spring and the contestant’s request of any public domain song to be played as the entr’acte. After a few tries, a young man named Nathan succeeded. When we returned to the shed, we were treated to the best rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” any of us will hear in our lifetimes.
As you can see, it’s hard to describe Elephant 6. They describe themselves as “a collective of people playing music.” In fact, they are carnies, aliens, Great-Pumpkin believers, vagabonds and gods of the seasons. So thank you, Elephant 6, for bringing madness, music and spring to Salt Lake City.