Gig Review: Eels at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 27th February 2008

I’m not really sure where to begin this review because it needs to encapsulate not only the stunning performance by Mark Everett (or E) at the Bridgewater Hall last week, but also his recent “Best Of” collection, the b-sides compilation released at the same time, his moving autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, and the documentary he made for BBC4 about his father, the renowned physicist, Hugh Everett.

I remember hearing E’s first single, “Hello Cruel World” on the radio around 1991 or so, back when he was calling himself “A Man Called E.” The single was pretty good, but when I borrowed the album from a friend, I was less than impressed and thought nothing more of it until about 1996 when “Novacaine for the Soul” hit MTV. The song was catchy and unusual, considering everything on MTV at the time was either bad rap or even worse grunge. Something about the too-slick video and the slightly too-trendy indie haircuts on the band made me wonder if they were a one-trick pony, but when I spotted the album for a bargain $7 in Best Buy I bought it anyway. It was much better than I’d anticipated but still had this air of immaturity and lack of seriousness about the songs. “Susan’s House” has always annoyed me a little and there was something overly cute about masquing angst and depression behind comic book descriptions of “beloved monsters.” Nevertheless, when Eels played Lollapalooza that summer on the smaller stage, as we’d shelled out $30 to see James and Tricky, I figured I’d see what they were like on stage. I’d never seen anything quite like it.

For starters, they opened with their big radio hit, “Novacaine for the Soul” doing it as a spoken-word piece, which I thought was immediately gutsy because the crowd of frat boys and metalheads seriously didn’t appreciate it. Then as they worked their way through the album, the songs were almost unrecognizeable, they made everything sound different live. It was unusual, it was playful, and to me it suggested a set of serious musicians who were experimenting with their music, who saw songwriting as fluid and adaptable to their current mood, and it suggested a lack of preciousness and an ability to critique themselves. Other members of the crowd were less appreciative. One fellow, either stupid or just late to the set, kept screaming for “Novacaine for the Soul.” After a few minutes of this E responded by asking “Do you mean this?” and playing the guitar hook. As the crowd screamed “yay!” thinking the band were going to play it “properly” he said “We’ve done that already, you should have got here on time.” Then he made the guy get up on stage and play the jingle bells.

To me that has pretty much summed up what I expect from E as a songwriter. He’s always experimenting with his own songs. Although you may know what to expect from an Eels album, lyrically at least, live it’s a mixed bag. One tour he may bring an orchestra, another he’s in full-on rock mode. Songs get sped up, slowed down, tried in different forms, sometimes renderded unrecognizeable, but it’s always fascinating, entertaining and up-front yet it is never, ever predictable.

One of the things that sets a truly great artist apart from an average one is the ability to really open up and be vulnerable and truthful. Few songwriters achieve it – Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave – and E is amongst these great songwriters. What is more striking, and what comes out in his recent autobiography, is that he doesn’t recognise that in himself. The book is a simple account of his rather unusual upbringing and the chaos, trauma and death that have followed him from the time he was a child. He writes quite plainly about his lack of a relationship with his father, who simply did not relate well to people; the shock of his father’s death; his sister’s depression, her drug problem and suicide; his mother’s battle with cancer; and most of all his long struggle to find himself, to feel worthy of anything, his brushes with drugs, alcohol and the law growing up, and his eventual decision to take a chance on his songwriting abilities. What struck me the most about the book were:

1) his descriptions about how, even now when he has produced some amazing albums, has a large cult following and can sell out venues the size of Bridgewater Hall, he still has to fight to release albums that record companies don’t find “commercial” enough. You don’t mess with genius. Seriously. When big labels die a death it will be in part because of their inability to grasp this, and to admit that sometimes their artists know best.

2) his amazement that artists like Neil Young and Tom Waits see him as a songwriter worthy of their patronage; and

3) his remark that he gets angry mail from fans who say they are betrayed every time he changes his style a little. Do these people really understand his music at all?

This tour was in support, then, of the book as well as a career retrospective which consists of a Best of CD and a two-CD collection of rarities, live tracks and b-sides which really does put the spotlight on how much he tinkers with the sound of his own music. The night, however, started with a showing of the documentary about his father. E was never close with his father and until recently never understood his father’s most important work, which has only been recognised as groundbreaking since his father’s death, nor has he ever really understood his father. In the documentary, he set out to try and grasp not only his father’s work, but to find out more about his father as a person, so he could feel closer to his roots. He succeeds on both counts.

His father was a quantum physicist who took the idea that electrons moving quickly can be in two places at once, to come up with the idea that these electrons emulate all matter which means that, in essence, people can be in two, ten, a thousand places at once. His idea is that for every choice we make, an alternate universe splits off in which we made the other choice, so that an infinite number of alternate realities exist as a result. His theory has seeped into popular culture in science fiction, literature and cinema – Dr. Who leaving Rose Tyler in a parallel world, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s evil vampire Willow being two prime examples. As E spoke to colleagues and friends of his father, the documentary shows him coming to grips not only with the genius of his father, but also with a greater understanding of what made his father into the person he was, uncommunicative with his children and seemingly unhappy. When he finally discovers some cassettes of his father talking he is visibly moved as he is able to connect the man he knew to the personality described by the people who knew other sides of his father. The end result, perhaps, is his admission in his book that he now realises that him and his father are very much the same – very sensitive and emotional but both shy loners who find it difficult to connect with others on a one-to-one level. I suspect the difference lies in the fact that a performer as open and honest as E is not somebody who shuns emotional connection with others, in fact he seems to be constantly reaching out for it, even if he is not always successful.

When E emerged onto the stage around 9pm he was unaccompanied. He was introduced by a voice telling him that “This is your life” so we knew there was going to be a staged element of comedy to the show. He opened with “Railroad Man” from Blinking Lights and played “Ugly Love” on his own, before introducing The Chet, who accompanied him for the rest of the gig, rotating between them through a range of instruments including three different keyboards, guitars, drums and a saw. On the whole the songs were fairly true to their album versions – as much as they could be with only two musicians on stage – except “Bus Stop Boxer” which was, in contrast to the distorted rock of the original, slow, quiet and acoustic.

In between songs E was as charming and funny as ever, thanking us for coming to see the son of a physicist and breaking up the music by reading through first some fan mail which began with two letters praising him and ended with one calling him a “cunt” for not coming to a particular fan’s hometown. Then he read through some reviews, pretending to get upset when they talking about The Chet’s musical prowess before ending with a review of The Eagles, in true comedic form. Then The Chet gave a couple of short readings from Things the Grandchildren Should Know, donning a pair of thick glasses when speaking in E’s voice, driving home the point that this evening was about E as much as Eels and his past and how he’d come to this point.

All the hits were there from “Souljacker” to “Last Stop: This Town” to “I Like Birds” and included what I think is the first rendition of “Novacaine for the Soul” where he actually sang, not spoke, the lyrics. “Flyswatter” even included a great instrumental moment where E and The Chet swapped instruments without missing a drumbeat, E taking over on drums one stick and beat at a time, sending The Chet to the piano, before The Chet came back and resumed his spot. The Ledge was thrilled to hear “Jeannie’s Diary” off Daisies of the Galaxy, which often doesn’t get a live airing, and I was thrilled to hear “Climbing to the Moon” which is one of my favourite moments off Electro-Shock Blues.

So often best of compilations are either a way for a record label to finish a band’s contract or a way to capitalise on a few extra sales from Christmas or some such event, but what this gig highlighted (as well as the CD releases it was promoting) is the depth and breadth of E’s back catalogue and exactly how much his music has seeped into public consciousness – I hear it in TV shows all the time these days. Unlike many artists as well, his songwriting keeps getting better, he keeps pushing himself to experiment with the range of sounds he uses, the musicians he works with and even with various parts of his back catalogue. Far from being an ending point to a great career, it still sounds to me like Mark Oliver Everett is just getting started and I very much look forward to trekking down to the Bridgewater Hall in 30 years time to see him performing forty years worth of hits from what is sure to become a legendary and groundbreaking career.

Eels – My Beloved Mad Monster Party (Live at the BBC)

Eels – I Like Birds (Live)

Eels – Railroad Man

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