Eels: Brixton Academy, London – live review

Eels © Naomi Dryden-Smith

Mark ‘E’ Everett summoned his inner Roger Daltry, gave Prince a run for his money, blasted Klaxon horns and delivered more cowbell as Eels returned to London after a four year wait. Louder Than War’s Andy Duke was on hand at Brixton Academy to witness this darkly melodic quartet at their showy and brazen best. 

I’ve seen many incarnations of Eels over the years. And the experiences have been so disparate in feel that I’m compelled to reference the work of Hugh Everett: the renowned physicist, and father of the group’s singer and driving force, developed the theory of parallel universes. In short, this involves how actions can and will affect the lives our different selves. Which is certainly a novel way to begin a gig review. But strangely appropriate in examining Mark Everett’s long-awaited return to the capital.

My encounters with the Virginia-born musician over the last two decades have been akin to seeing the very different parallel lives of the same person. I shall focus on two of these lives here. First, there was the detached Unabomber-styled performer who faced away from the audience for most of the gig at The Forum in 2001. With a hooded top over his head, dark shades covering his eyes and a long beard hiding his features – this was a very dark and clearly disturbed version of ‘E’. Engagement with the crowd was non-existent. And, seemingly, so was the stripped-down band’s chemistry.

Fast-forward nearly seventeen years and the star of Netflix’s ‘Love’ is a garrulous and highly energetic prospect onstage. Entertaining a sold-out crowd at Brixton Academy with a raucous band in tow, Everett is in his element and loving it. The quartet, spread across two risers, open with a cover of The Who’s Out In The Street complete with uncharacteristic Daltry-style screams from the maracas-wielding frontman. The last time I saw Eels, at The Royal Albert Hall in 2014, it was was a sedate, delicate and consistently measured affair. But this latest parallel life of ‘E’ runs the gamut from loud and brash to lush and restrained. Only two songs in, and with purple stage lights descending onto the foursome, the band launches into a sumptuous cover of Prince’s Raspberry Beret. By the song’s final bridge, Mark and guitarist Jeff ‘The Chet’ Lyster are partaking in some syncopated dancing. The late Mr Nelson would have been proud to see his track reworked with such enthusiasm, reverence and fun. And the experience feels a parallel world away from the static Unabomber gig.

Eels © Naomi Dryden-Smith

“Are you ready to soft rock?”, asks Everett to the 4,921 strong crowd. This sudden change in pace is a testament to the group’s wide dynamic range. After showcasing what ‘E’ quipped as “a lot of rock and roll for a man of my age”, Eels dial the tempo and delivery right down with A Magic World, Dirty Girl and That Look You Give That Guy. With Prizefighter, from 2009’s Hombre Lobo album, the band slowly picks up the pace as Everett’s vocals take on a quasi-Lou Reed quality. With a set of bongos delivered next to Lyster’s mic, Mark asks “mind if I jam on my new castanets?” before the ensemble tackles You Are The Shining Light from this year’s The Deconstruction album. This catchy nod to the swinging sixties wouldn’t have been out of place on Beck’s Midnite Vultures album and the song’s cheery pace inspires light banter afterwards. “Didn’t ‘The Chet’ do a great job on the bongos? Look, he’s even got a standing ovation down on the floor and seated ovation up in the balcony”. Whilst introducing the band, and providing star sign details of each member, Everett is disturbed by an unexpected arrival onstage. Jon Averns, a Livery Company representative, delivers cufflinks and a tie in commemoration of the singer’s status as an Honorary Freeman of London. This isn’t an ordinary gig and The Eels are not an ordinary band: albeit one that now has a Freeman of London in their ranks. And, for the record, Mark is an Aries, ‘The Chet’ (Guitar/Bongos/Vibraslap) a Virgo, Little Joe (Drums) a Pisces with a Virgo Rising and Big Al (Bass) is a Taurus. Following the astrological particulars of his band being examined, the group’s diminutive drummer (who was standing in for regular skin-basher Knuckles) is the subject of a charming introduction song called Little Joe which the percussionist sings with great Piscean aplomb.

Although Eels have been reluctant to add big hits like Novocaine For The Soul into their set for a number of recent tours, this ode to a well-known dental painkiller is given an arrangement makeover alongside Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues. The former, which is laden with new heavy riffs, recalls the Seattle grunge sound while the latter is made to sound like ‘The Who’ complete with Keith Moon-style drum fills a la I Can See For Miles. Despite the impressive execution of both, the new arrangements sadly detract from the charm of these much loved fan faves. Whilst I appreciate that commercially successful tracks can feel like an albatross to a band who continue to be creatively productive and relevant, these song reboots ended up being unnecessary weak points in what is an amazingly strong and varied set. Capping off the evening with two encores and another Prince cover, When You Were Mine, Everett reveals his influences in his parting comment to the enthusiastic crowd; “That was fun. Brian Wilson, Peter Townshend and Prince – thanks for making US”.

Whereas the parallel life of Mark Everett that I witnessed at The Forum back in 2001 was overwhelmed by his well-documented tragedies, this 2018 version is laughing and dancing in spite of them. Now that he is an Honorary Freeman of London, I hope that our capital will not have to wait so long for Eels to return here.

Eels © Naomi Dryden-Smith

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Listen to Eels’ latest album, The Deconstruction, here.

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Find out more about The Eels via: Facebook, TwitterYouTube and the band’s official website.

All words by Andy Duke. Andy Duke is a London based raconteur, musician, writer, collector of soda syphons and the man behind ‘The Dukey Radio Show’ podcast. 

All photos © Naomi Dryden-Smith. You can find more of Naomi’s work for Louder Than War here, and she (occasionally) tweets as @nomeshome. Also on Facebook and Instagram. Naomi’s Photography portfolio can be found here

Please note: Use of these images in any form without permission is illegal. If you wish to use/purchase or licence any images please contact Naomi Dryden-Smith at naomidrydensmith@gmail.com

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2 comments on “Eels: Brixton Academy, London – live review”

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  1. A great review Andy but I disagree with your view of ‘The Hits’, E has always reworked his more popular tracks and played them when on tour usually to the delight of the audience and Monday was no different. The band were excellent and the twist given to the tunes just confirms the genius that is E and The Eels and they were well received by the audience. The humour displayed by E and the band has often been there in the past but I agree it has often been darker. E apologised for a 4 year gap and explained that he has been on a kind of 4 year breakdown, it is part of the tragedy of the band that we profit from E’s troubles. It was great to see E in such a playful mood dancing and looking like he was enjoying the evening which the rest of the crowd and certainly did.

    • Many thanks for your feedback, Mark.

      In order to structure the review around his father’s parallel lives theory, I deliberately chose two very different and juxtaposed guises of Everett to contrast with each other. I fully appreciate that there have been other periods of lightness in his life. And that this most recent tour is by no means the debut of onstage fun and humour for Mark. Far from it.

      In addition, I certainly was not berating ‘E’ for the gaps in his band’s UK visits. The fact that I am not alone in wanting his brilliant band to visit these shores on a more regular basis is a testament to just how exciting a proposition Eels are. But, the reasons for the delay were well highlighted by the man himself onstage at Brixton Academy. To say I am sympathetic to them would be an understatement.

      As for ‘The Hits’, there were a number of Eels tours in which the likes of ‘Novocaine For The Soul’, for instance, didn’t feature. While the revamped versions of his more popular output may not be to my taste, I fully appreciate that other fans may love it. From where I was standing, at least, these ‘reboots’ felt like tiny lulls in an otherwise stunning performance. Ultimately, one person’s lull might be another’s highlight. Such is the nature of reviews.

      Thanks for taking time to read my take on Eels’ recent London gig and giving your much appreciated feedback.

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