This was the last night of Eels’ tour to promote this year’s Wonderful, Glorious. 53 dates since February 14, beginning in Santa Ana, California and ending in Madrid‘s Riviera — a 2,500 capacity venue beside the Manzanares River and overlooked by the Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral. The final gig on a tour can go either way: you can have an exhausted band, robotically going through the motions, fixing the audience with 1000-yard stares as they mentally put the rigors of touring behind them and dream of family and sleeping in their own beds or you can have a giddy, excited band that has been forged in the white heat of a world tour and is giving it their all as they drive for the line. Fortunately for a packed Riviera, we got the latter.
From the moment E and the boys hit the stage and launched into “Bombs Away”, we were rocked by an outfit as tight as a duck’s arse and delighting in their performance as much as any band I’ve seen. Speaking of outfits, Eels all wore matching vintage Adidas tracksuits and aviator sunglasses — a look which suggested that these guys meant business, were up on stage for a workout and that us down below better get ready to be taken through the wringer (which we were). The look also gave the impression of a band that was functioning as a unit, a team, and, given the high quality of their output, its cohesion and harmony, those darned (not literally, of course!) tracksuits weren’t just for show. These guys were flying in formation and all their bombs were hitting bull’s-eye. The numerous high-fives, embraces, group hugs and even a wedding ceremony/renewal of vows (yes you read correctly) between E and guitarist, The Chet, attested to the togetherness of this particular incarnation of Eels.
Which brings me onto another thing: audience interaction. These guys had fun with us. And we had fun with them. There was none of that “we love you Madrid, you’re the best audience ever” bullshit you get with a lot of acts (you stand accused, Arcade Fire!). We were treated to E’s wry humour and strangely charismatic self-deprecation, The Chet’s attempts to get cheap applause by using Spanish and P-Boo’s zaniness. They teased us, made jokes about siestas and pretended to be offended when we mock-booed — the kind of stuff you want from a band in between songs. A bit of their personality. Some humanity. A sense of who they are. From the last two bands I saw at The Riviera (The xx and Crystal Castles) we received none of this; we may as well have been watching Kraftwerk in full-on Mensch Maschine mode.
Some words: funky, bluesy, dramatic, hectic, hard, rockin’ — even hard-rockin’! The music was all these things, sometimes simultaneously. Very few of the songs played were of the downbeat or slow variety, bar “The Turnaround” from Wonderful, Glorious, a cover of Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” (which I believe they’ve been doing a lot live lately), and a beautiful, chilled, delicate version of “Fresh Feeling”, which sounded like Johnny Marr had snuck on stage to help out with the finger picking. The majority of the material was taken from Wonderful, Glorious with the bulk of the remainder coming from the last three post-Blinking Lights and Other Revelations albums. It’s a sign of how strong E’s songwriting remains that he doesn’t have to stray too far from the current and recent records to fill up an amazing show. Thus, no “Novocaine for the Soul“, nothing whatsoever from Electoshock Blues, and only “The Sound of Fear”, the aforementioned “Fresh Feeling” and “Souljacker Part I” from their pre-Blinking Lights canon. Oh and a brilliant, joyful, bliss-inducing mash-up of “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” and “My Beloved Monster”!
This was a show for current fans, not those that dropped the band sometime between Shootenanny and 2013, when the going got tough and E stopped writing impress-your-friends and buy-the-T-shirt songs along the lines of “I Like Birds” or, as he says sarcastically, George W. Bush’s favourite — “It’s a Motherfucker”! If Eels have gotten more difficult, less immediate since the early noughties, it’s because the songwriting has matured. It’s always been reflective in an edgy, sarcastic sort of way, but now it’s just deeper, more layered. The songs demand more of the listener. More listens. More attention. But when an album grows on you, it’s part of you forever. And when you hear those difficult songs live, it’s more rewarding than 1,000 “Novocaines” or “I Like Birds”. If you want “Novocaine” check them out at a festival! And anyway, who say’s “Fresh Blood” with its wolf-howls ‘n’ all isn’t the new “Novocaine”?
So. Final verdict? This long-time (I remember when “Novocaine” and “Last Stop: This Town” sounded like the future!!) fan came away from the Riviera (after a third and very late encore to a half-empty hall and with the house lights on) having been blown away by both the material and its delivery. Eels are one of the best live acts out there. Their commitment to playing live and giving a good show is as clear as the stripes on E’s sweatpants. They rocked my world last Sunday.