Thank God for the friends I have that keep looking out for my best musical interests.
A couple of years ago, one such friend dragged me out to see a show by the Eels. For the uninitiated, the Eels are essentially the brainchild of Mark Oliver Everett, better known to a small, but rabidly devoted fanbase as simply "E".
The Eels are probably best known to the masses for their lone hit, a post grunge ditty called "Novocaine For the Soul," that briefly enjoyed airplay on alternative rock stations in the nineties. The thing is however — as I soon discovered attending that concert in 2005 — that song only scratches the surface of "E's" rather unique musical talents.
On that particular night, touring behind the album Blinking Lights (And Other Revelations), the Eels performed in what can only be described as a rather high-brow sort of concert setting, with Mr. E backed by a small string ensemble.
What came across more than anything was the fact that while E's songs can seem deceptively simple on the surface, there are many levels of depth lying just underneath. Even as Mr. E came across as a personal, quite engaging performer — he was an odd sort of bearded eccentric, chomping on a fat cigar and joking with the audience — his songs seemed to reveal an intensely personal, melancholic sort of quality.
This was a guy with some issues, many of which seemed to revolve around a complicated relationship with his father. And I was pretty much instantly hooked.
The other thing that came across that night however, was that Everett surrounded himself with some pretty amazing musicians — particularly multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lyster, or "The Chet" as he is better known to fans. That night, "The Chet" played the hell out of everything from several variations of the guitar, to a drum kit consisting of little more than trashcan lids.
The other thing about an Eels show is that it seems you never know just what you are going to get. Since that high-brow show three years ago with the string ensemble, the Eels have performed here in Seattle a couple of times as a more stripped down sort of rock band. Invited by yet another friend to check the band's concert at the Showbox out tonight, I soon learned they would strip things down even further, on both a musical and personal level.
The evening began with a film tracing Everett's efforts to learn more about his father, who was a brilliant eccentric (not unlike "E" himself).
As it turns out, Everett's father was a scientist specializing in quantum physics who more or less discovered — and was later discredited for — the theory of parallel universes. In the film, "E" discovers this in a personal quest by tracking down his various associates, only to make the ultimate discovery of how the rejection of his groundbreaking theories eventually destroyed him.
As an artist whose work is already quite personal, "E" pulled no punches here. Still, it is refreshing to see how he maintained a sense of humor about the whole thing — jokingly referring to himself as the "Julian Lennon of Quantum Physics" once the Eels finally took the stage.
Speaking of which…
Once they finally did, tonight's incarnation of the Eels consisted solely of "E" and "The Chet." And in a ninety minute set, they built at first from "E's" quieter, more introspective and melancholic songs, to a full-on rocking crescendo where they shook the house like a full band.
"The Chet" in particular was a house of fire — alternating between drums, keyboards, and some absolutely scorching guitar. At one point, "E" and "The Chet" even switched off on piano and drums (and "E" aint a half bad drummer himself). "The Chet" also read at times from "E's" just published autobiography (yup — he's now a published author too).
As the concert drew to a close with a nice trifecta of "Soul Jacker," "Novocaine For The Soul," and a brief, but great cover of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times," (where "The Chet" reminded me a lot of what Nels Kline has done to "complete" Wilco's shows last year), I found myself thankful for those friends who keep dragging me out to these things.