BELIEVE IT OR NOT, SOMETIMES (OR maybe just three times) music festivals are about the music. I learned this a year or two back at South by Southwest's poorer relation, North by Northwest, on a night I wasn't expecting anything more than too many heads in my way and a bunch of weasels yakking about how much free booze could be scammed at the next day's endless list of parties. I had no idea who or what a band called Music Tapes was, or that its frontman/creator, Julian Koster, would shake free the grouse that had taken up residence in my vocal cavity and replace it with a bird who couldn't stop chattering about a singularly musical, wonderful night, the kind of night that you can feel welling in the corners of your eyes every time you think back on it.

If I had done my homework, I would have known that Music Tapes was essentially Koster, who once fronted a band called Chocolate U.S.A., whom I saw play at a small club in Portland in 1994. I'm not likely to go up and gush to a band after their performance, but in this case I was propelled to do so by Koster's childlike voice and broken-hearted songs backed by a ragtag assembly of musicians playing tiny keyboards, acoustic guitars, and a saw. If you closed your eyes it was like listening to a playground roaring at full recess, and then realizing that through it all you could hear the wail of a little boy who had fallen and skinned his knee. Embarrassed and shy, I walked up to Koster and told him it was one of the most quietly stunning shows I had ever seen. He thanked me, and we talked for a bit--he said he was glad to not be sitting alone in a club in a town where he knew no one.

Koster is probably best known for being a member of Elephant 6 Collective's gorgeous Neutral Milk Hotel, where he plays all manner of instruments from keyboards and toy pianos to accordion, banjo, and the saw. The first time I saw Neutral Milk Hotel, the band was playing at yet another music festival, this time in Manhattan. Koster was wearing a paper crown, seated in front of his carved child's piano. I thought I recognized him from that show in Portland, but the excessively dim lights and jostling crowd prevented me from being sure.

Spin ahead another year and we're at that North by Northwest showcase, again in Portland, and I'm not having a very good night. I'm bristly and worrying that my five-month-old puppy, holed up in my hotel room, is going to ignore her toys, poop all over, then chew the place to the ground. I see a television screen placed center stage, and some strange looking instruments, and my eyes start to roll. I consider chucking it in and calling for a cab, and then the show starts. The television comes to life and the sweetest little O of a mouth begins singing, as static crackles in the background. It's electronically altered, but the voice is unmistakably Koster's. In the darkness I can make out yet another ragtag collection of strange instruments and musicians; their leader--the flesh and blood one--looking exactly as he did in 1994. The songs were more of the sad boy variety I had instantly loved, but new and different, and that wobbly O of a mouth made it just so damn poignant I felt myself swooning, something I almost never do.

After the show I went over to the merchandise table and bought a single, and told Koster I remembered him from Chocolate U.S.A. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone at the show recalled his former band, as it had only been a blip on the indie rock scene, eclipsed by the enormous critical praise heaped upon Neutral Milk Hotel. The night sparkled, and I thought I should get home to Mamie before she chewed her way down to the front desk (or before I saw or heard something that made me crabby again). I called a cab and passed Koster on the way out, thanking him again for a wonderful show as he stood by the curb, talking to friends. After the cab arrived, the driver circled the block in order to get back onto the main road. As we passed the club I looked out the window, and Koster and all the people he was standing with were waving. I felt it in the corners of my eyes.

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