Eels photo © Grimshaw Glassjaw
Eels first three albums rarely left my walkman as I ran the gauntlet to school, dodging fists and anything else that could be thrown. In an era when a lot of gig goers are seeking nostalgia at the expense of new music, I felt guilty that the main attraction for me was to hear the hits of my youth again – quite literally. I suppose I couldn’t resist reliving the soundtrack to having the shit kicked out of me.
Despite drifting from the band I always regretted never seeing them live. I’d missed every show in Manchester through sheer bad luck and had many preconceptions of the gig which were dismantled throughout the night. I was confused from the off because there wasn’t a keyboard in sight. Naively, I hoped one would be lowered from the ceiling whilst E (singer Mark Everett’s alias – lots more of them to follow) coaxed it down. I thought at the very least a toy piano would be wheeled on stage at some point but tonight was to be a guitar only affair.
Drummer Knuckles was set up front of stage left, E flanked the right side swapping electric guitar for various percussion throughout. The Chet and P-Boo also handled guitar duties and Koool G anchored everything down with the bass despite blowing his amp on the second song of the night. These three were set up on a podium at the back of the stage and the whole set up resembled The Stamps backing Elvis in his Vegas years only instead of jumpsuits everyone wore Adidas tracksuits with their Ray Bans. I doubt this was because of a sponsorship deal either. The band walked on one at a time before the King of morbid self reflection entered the building…
They opened with Bombs Away, the first track off the new album Wonderful, Glorious which was almost played in it’s entirety throughout the night. It’s a revelation to see E in the flesh, totally at odds with my image of him as he snarls ‘I’m sick and tired of being complacent, I’m sick and tired of being a mouse’. I can imagine Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down whistling it calmly just after he’s ordered breakfast with his Uzi.
Kinda Fuzzy, Open My Present and new single Peach Blossom all sound like the Blues Explosion fronted by Bo Diddley with the Ikettes shaking maracas almost as much as their tush. E looked like a man who was beyond caring anymore and his lack of inhibition was contagious. These new songs have a resemblance to some of the more guttural primal screaming heard on the 2009 Hombre Lobo album with songs such as Tremendous Dynamite, Fresh Blood and Prizefighter all of which were included in the set, lifting the crowd who were slow to react to the bombardment of newer material.
There was some doom and gloom for the old faithful which strangely enough, kicked things up a gear. Dirty Girl drew the first sing along of the night and new song On the Ropes sounds like it’s straight from the Hank William’s songbook. What’s more, it confirms that E’s music is still a cathartic outlet for his vulnerability as well as a platform to beat his chest.
The decision to cover Oh Well by Fleetwood Mac struck me as an odd decision musically but worked well. Everett’s history of depression and mental illness in his family is not far removed from the tragic life of Peter Green but it was a rare nod to any traces of his past. This was offset by the inclusion of more telling covers signalling a new state of mind for the band; the gleeful Itchicoo Park and more bizarrely; Wind Beneath My Wings during a surreal sketch worthy of a Mothers of Invention show in which E gets married to The Chet, band partner of 10 years by their ‘legally ordained’ bassist.
This was the point when I realised that E was no longer bound by the trauma of his past, at least not musically. Eels early work reflected a time when he was dealt a truly shit hand and in the intervening years he has exorcised his demons. Although they will never fully leave he has survived seemingly in tact with an insatiable urge to have fun and live whilst he can.
Most Eels fans will know that Mark Everett has had a turbulent past because so many earlier albums provide an inescapable backdrop to his life story. Electro Shock Blues right through to Blinking Lights and Other Revelations feature many songs which are explicitly autobiographical, dealing with suicide, mortality, terminal illness and other cheery topics. Even without any prior knowledge, with just one listen to the aforementioned you can safely assume he’s been through the ringer once or twice. This is quite an understatement if you’ve seen the Parallel Lives, Parallel Worlds documentary (https://vimeo.com/58603054) or read his book Things the Grandchildren Should Know that discloses his story in depth.
The beauty of Eels music is that no amount of poorly written gig reviews will make you feel like a tourist in someone else’s nightmare. Their songs have the ability to part the seas of trauma so you can take an unflinching look at some of your own painful experiences but where other artists would sound whiney or reproachful Everett is stoic and darkly humourous and that is what’s so life affirming about his music.
Eels have left their confessional back catalogue behind tonight and showcase a new optimism about the world proving that music can be a great healer. When I was growing up their album’s always reminded me of being in the last stretch of tunnel before you see the light, whispering to gauge the distance you have left to go. Now that Everett’s out of the hole and in the open air again, he’s screaming like a man who’s stumbled from the desert after seeing God and it’s both wonderful and glorious.
Open My Present
Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac)
In My Dreams
On The Ropes
Trouble With Dreams
Sound Of Fear
Wind Beneath My Wings/Go Knuckles
Itchicoo Park (Small Faces)
Souljacker part 1
I’m Your Brave Little Soldier
Beloved Monster/Mr. E’s Beatiful Blue’s (mash up)
Go Eels/Wonderful Glorious