Eels, as everyone knows, is the musical project of singer and bandleader Mark “E” Everett; not far off its 20th birthday, the project has shifted through many forms, from near-solo performances, through big band arrangements, to today’s incarnation, a five-piece guitar combo with a penchant for existential swamp-rock.
The entire performance is couched in slightly unsettling terms: the five-piece band is clad identically in Adidas tracksuit, beard and sunglasses; when they are introduced halfway through, it becomes apparent for reasons of convention they have all been given human nicknames, but don’t be fooled – the truth is that E has perfected the theory and practice of human genetic cloning, and has pressed it into service for the benefit of musical performance. The clue is in the leader’s name: he’s standing far stage right, and if you tag each musician from left to right, starting at the beginning of the alphabet, you finally get to E, the E-vil genius behind the whole affair.
On record, Eels have an eclectic way with an arrangement: latest LP ‘Wonderful, Glorious’ features bits of synth, electronic beats, and as many downtempo low-fi moments as electric guitar excursions. Not so live, however – tonight it was guitar central. Now, anyone who claims the guitar band is dead just has to look at what Eels can do with an electric guitar ensemble to refute their own claim. They start as they mean to go on – with noise and aggression. An extended play of ‘Dog Faced Boy’ rocks thumpingly hard. A surprise version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ is quite a treat so early in the set, the band revelling in the stop-start call-and-response section. Older heads in the audience nod along sagely. After such a noisy start, the tempo inevitably needs to slow down for a while. “Here’s one for the ladies”, E declares, before shifting into the gentle beauty of ‘The Turnaround’. See, girls, he’s not all beard and shouting, there’s a delicate side to him as well. Not that it lasts all that long, the band clearly ache to wind up the overdrive and rock out again for the drawn-out end coda.
But there’s more to Eels than just fret wizardry. There’s a strong theatrical streak throughout, at times almost disturbingly surreal. There’s a false alarm of some structural deficiency in the auditorium (ironic considering the venue’s collapsing floor incident of some years ago), complete with sirens and the band ducking for cover. There’s banter between the band and their tour crew, including the fantastically stereotypical tour manager who repeatedly attempts to limit them to just one more song. It’s obviously just for show, but there’s enough doubt in one’s mind to make it fun. They run back on stage to play a final song even as the stage is being dismantled; again, perfectly staged, but quite striking anyway, as the crew wander around coiling leads and packing kit, the band are belting out one final song. Were they allowed? Was it all for show, or a genuinely subversive act? Either way, it shows a sense for the dramatic, an awareness of the fourth-wall abstract that raises a simple rock ‘n’ roll performance to more profound heights. A memorable performance that barely scratched the surface of Eels’ back catalogue.