Eels (with Strings) - Royal Festival Hall - 23/05
Mark Oliver 'E' Everett stands before a baying crowd, hands hanging by his sides, dressed in an olive green jump suit. He puts the mic in his mouth, screams, tumbles backwards and ends up in a heap on the floor as the band rock out around him.
Mark Oliver 'E' Everett stands before a hushed crowd, leaning on a walking cane, cigar in the other hand, dressed in a rumpled, possibly olive green, suit that's one part eccentric aristocrat, one part David Byrne, one part thrift shop chic. He putters to a piano whilst the band provide gentle harmonies around him.
A lonely crocodile puts an ad up seeking friends.
Suddenly it all makes sense. The world of the Eels comes into focus and it all makes beautiful sense.
It doesn't happen immediately. Not during the support act: a Russian cartoon that sits somewhere between Bob The Builder, Pingu and The League Of Gentlemen. Not during the pre show short history of the band that could well be a trailer for a thoroughly entertaining Eels DVD. But at some point during tonight's show a (blinking) light comes on and guddammit it all makes perfect wonderful sense...
Huddled in the middle of an otherwise empty Festival Hall stage is a collection of pianos, a double bass, a guitar, a suitcase, a waste bin, assorted bits of possible junk and a couple of amps. Someone's quite possibly lifted E's front room and dropped it right there infront of us. Raised slightly behind the jumble are the strings: four lovely ladies on three violins and a cello. To the left is Big Al on mainly double bass and autoharp. To the right is Chet on lapsteel, saw, drums (we'll come back to them but remember the suitcase) and occasional electric guitar. And ambling between pianos, organ, occasional acoustic guitar and never far from the cigar is Mark Oliver 'E' Everett.
And what they do is play 31, that's 31, tracks of the most astonishing uplifting sadness and beauty; nursery rhymes and lullabies for the broken hearted that float over you like the gentle warming breath of angels. There's more humanity in one second of I'm Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart than in the entire catalogue of pretty much any other band you might care to mention; more honesty in one note of Suicide Life than any 'right on' 'we're in it for the peeeple' muso favourite.
But don't go thinking this is some hideous introspective convention for manic depressives. E's talent is for turning the most terrible events into tunes that break your heart in a good way - you know the way you feel when you see the love of your life for the first time. And don't go thinking that no one's smiling here. Because trying to second guess Mr E is about as futile as catching the Northern Line and hoping you'll be home on time. Which is why we get E deferring to the Royal box and telling us that the Queen, obviously present tonight, is a huge fan of the early stuff and has My Beloved Monster on her iPod. Or the jaunty swing through I Like Birds complete with rubbish whistling. If their first encore of Hey Man (Now You're Really Living) had been played on electric guitars at that speed it would have been a thrash metal song.
The strings that sigh so gracefully through the tracks from Blinking Light work equally as well on the eclectic mix of older tracks and when not required the band turn to shaking maracas or as when the drums are needed playing the suitcase (as a bass drum) and garbage can. It's playful genius and a sly wink at those (none of whom are present tonight) who wish to take things just a little too seriously.
And this is where it all makes sense. When E refers to the band he means all 7 of the players on the stage tonight. For the strings are just the latest incarnation of the Eels. The band exists in whatever form is required to perform his music at the time. And that is always changing. Sometimes you'll get it and sometimes you won't but that's the way it is. Don't expect to hear Novocaine or Last Stop because that's not part of the plan. But that doesn't mean to say it won't be tomorrow. Each incarnation, like good old Dr Who, may enrage some or find new fans but it's all many different sides of the same E. Just look back at the album titles and you'll see how well they reflect the different styles therein. The older songs find themselves reworked into the current vein and next time around it will all be different again. And maybe we'll get it and maybe we won't. But we can be sure that it'll be another side of Mark Oliver 'E' Everett at the front of the stage, probably looking gruffly at us, but underneath it all loving every moment. He may not throw in a cover of Dylan's Girl From The North Country and he may not leave us close to tears with the confessional advice of Things The Grandchildren Should Know but he will always sucker punch us. Which is why some time after the lights have gone on and we're half way out (fools that we are) we have to run back in to catch a fourth encore, a cover of Prince's I'll Never Take The Place Of Your Man.
And the fans?
Well we just keep on clapping till the cleaning ladies arrive.