The last time Eels played Madrid, just over a year ago, the band was wearing retro Adidas track suits and it was a FUN night. It was up. It was loud. It was cookin’. They rocked our world. This time the band wore dark lounge-lizard suits and looked almost David Lynchian in their seedy but neat-as-pin formality. Along with the suits, everything else — the sombre lighting, the upright bass, The Chet’s lap steel guitar — told us we were not about to have a fun night.
This incarnation of the Eels, this tour, this album (The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett) and this particular concert were always going to be themed around the other side of the coin to fun: regret, pain, dismay, loss, loneliness, Weltschmertz. In fairness to Eels’ leader, E (aka Mark Oliver Everett), he warned us early on that the night was going to be a “bummer”.
Again and again, E introduced — in that wry, self-depreciating way of his — what he referred to as “bummers”, but that ugly disyllable does little justice to the songs played; these were sparkling gems of poignant sadness and moist-eyed beauty. The concert’s backbone was formed by seven outstandingly well-crafted, songwriters’ songwriter exhibition pieces from the latest album. These were interspersed with songs in keeping with the spirit of the night from back as far as Eels’ first album — 1996’s Beautiful Freak — to all the way along the band’s eleven album back catalogue. What was on show were two things: the consistent, peerless ability of E to pen a type of left-of-centre, soul-jerking expression of fragility and lonesomeness; and the musicianship, versatility, and tightness of Eels the band.
It was a sit-down concert. Recalling the previous year’s rockathon, I had been worried prior to the concert that we’d be stuck to our seats with toe-tapping the only form of self-expression available to us or doing that awkward half stance/half dance as Eels raged through their rockier numbers. I need not have been concerned. A tone was set from the beginning that tied in perfectly with a seated gig, with The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett‘s opening track, the instrumental “Where I’m At”, kicking things off. The piece is a glorious slice of melancholy, subtle enough to hint at the author’s optimism in spite of current circumstances (the latest album has been described as Eels’ break-up album). As the band delicately steered the piece’s pensive course we in the audience knew we were in for a special gig: gentle, swinging, considered sadness was to be the order of the evening. When they followed this up with a surprise cover of the 1940s classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, you could hear a pin drop in the packed auditorium (no small feat in Madrid where concert-goers are notorious for talking during the performance; I had a whole XX concert ruined by chatting “fans” a couple of years ago). With E wearing his heart on his sleeve and the band gently weeping, stripped-down versions of what have become touchstones for Eels fans were delivered. We got to hear “Daisies of the Galaxy”, “My Beloved Monster”, “Fresh Feeling” and George W. Bush’s favourite (not!), “It’s a Motherfucker”.
This tour’s incarnation of Eels (five members this time out) brought great versatility to proceedings. Many songs didn’t have drums. For these, percussionist Knuckles took to, as E ribbed, “playing actual notes for a change”, adding tubular bells, the glockenspiel and God knows what else as flourishes to songs. At other times we were treated to rumbles of kettle drums, brushed drums or plain old knee slapping. For many numbers E played piano instead of guitar, and we were reminded of just how much as central to the sound of Eels the keyboard is as the guitar. The Chet switched between lap steel guitar, jazz guitar and acoustic. Upright bass was sometimes played with a bow. P-Boo, depending on the song played trumpet, guitar or keyboard. It was a warm, resonant sound — the harmonics of heartbreak — that sometimes lifted one’s spiritys to the point of feeling beyond mere daily life.
In the middle of the eighteen-song set we got a break from the regret and melancholia. The trio of oldies “Fresh Feeling”, “I Like Birds” and “My Beloved Monster”, while not quite delivering a burst of high-octane rawk, did bring delirious smiles to our faces. After the set was closed up with two of the most defiantly life’s-a-bitch-but-I’m-hanging-in-there songs you’ll ever hear, “Mistakes of My Youth” — very full-sounding and like the Smiths gone country — and “Where I’m Going” — a reprise-with-vocals of opening song “Where I’m At” — the audience was left feeling like we had been through a masterclass in pain and loss, but somehow made it over the hill and a bright new world awaited. E came down into the crowd for hugs, looking like he himself had been moved by a great performance that had gone down like a bomb with a peculiarly in-the-mood-for-being-bummed-out crowd. The band took a short break and we were treated to two encores. Among the encored songs were a pair from Electro-Shock Blues (an album about his sister’s suicide), and the power of these (“3 Speed” and “Last Stop This Town”) played live is something that will stay with me for a long time.
I’m already waiting for Eels next album and tour. E always has a change of direction up his sleeve and boasts that rare ability to make albums that sound like nothing that has gone before while simultaneously bearing all the hallmarks of his band. In almost twenty years of Eels, the quality has never faltered. It’s a credit to E that he’s not hitched himself on to the festival circuit and, instead of giving sharp bursts of the greatest hits to monster crowds, is busting his ass touring the world with a fresh and carefully formulated sound and set list every year or so. Eels put everything into a performance and seeing how seriously they take every date on their tour one becomes convinced that being bloody good at what you do is the best way of leaving the crowd wanting for more.