Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Eels Albert Hall and another time and place

There was a strand of Americsn Rock that emerged in the post grunge 90's that would have passed many British observes by, half drowned as it was in the drab thud of Britpop. Sparklehorse, Silver Jews and most successful, Mark E's Eels produce a brand of subtle introspective music that was in many ways so far ahead of what was happening here. Like softly spoken geniuses in a bar full of beered up pole dancing fans they were easy to ignore. Eels first album was bursting with great slices of what Mark E describes a bummer rock. In 1997 I saw them in a tent at the Reading Festival. It was a tipping point year for me. The sun was shining a Palace side featuring Atillio Lombardo were beating Leeds away from home but the music that day felt dead. Bands like Travis, wannadies and The Cardigans confirming that if there had been a party the drinks cabinet was now very empty. Eels were my last big hope for the day.

Then a 3 piece Mark E seemed at odds with the experience from the start. A round peg making itself square just to piss off the hole. The songs were discordant, he was tetchy. Dumping the familiar arrangements of songs from the album they seemed to want to prevent the audience connecting. Novocain for the Soul was almost unrecognisable and to be honest pretty shit compared to the record. This was not a band playing badly, it was a band deliberately seeing to confound. After a long day of standing around drinking lager in plastic glasses I wanted the easy option. I didn't want to be challenged. Ending the day feeling let down by a band I loved came to fit in my nemory with the wider malaise that hung over the day.

Time passes and I end up with a pair of tickets to see Eels at the Albert Hall. Though I had continued to buy the albums, that day in 1997 remained the only time I had seen them live. I kind of guessed that so much time had passed that it bound to be very different, but I wasn't sure how. Based on the experience of 1997 to sound of the recorded work did not make me feel on safe ground. In many ways everything had change yet the core remained the same. E had adopted the raconteur style of  stoner Tom Waites. Self mockery and in jokes with the crowd tipping the wink that there was a smile behind the underbite scowl, at least some of the time. The band had grown and changed. The drummer with the tache and stretson, and the bass player with the comic deep voice had gone. They had probably been gone for 10 years if Ruth be known. But of an artist that has played so often with different persona and styles this set also revealed a very clear trajectory. At set that balanced the bummer with redemptions nod smiles. 'Line in the dirt' opens with 'she locked herself in the bathroom again, so I'm pissing in the yard' a deadpan take on flat lives that brings to mind writers like array mind Carver.

The 48 year old me tapping my foot in thr box in the grand tier wondered what the 18 year old me would have thought of this. But the sound was great, the view was great and it was easy to get a beer. The middle aged me was happy with that. There was a great set up. During the set E bemoans not being able to use the Hall's grand pipe organ. The set carried on through a series of encores, the highlight for he being a tender rendition of 'last stop this time.' When the band finally leaves the stage there was a sense there maybe more. Suddenly the backdrop falls away and E appears phantom of the opera style, manic stage laughter and all, an get to play a few brooding bars on what I guess must be one of the biggest musical instruments in the world, before slipping away once again.

It was a wonderful show from a band that still ploughs their own furrow, but have learnt to love putting on a show.