Eels – Brixton Academy, London – 21 March 2013

Written for The Music Fix.

Over the past couple of decades, the cult of Mark “E” Everett’s Eels has essentially been that of a solo artist. Bandmates have come and gone, and the Eels name has mostly been seen as an emotional channel for E’s personal tragedies. It’s only with their latest album, Wonderful, Glorious, that they have been strongly identified once more as a band in a more collaborative sense.

Eels have a track record for playing gigs in wildly different styles, which is exemplified by the aftermath of their 2005 double album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. That album, the centrepiece of E’s career, spawned a divergent pair of tours: the ‘With Strings’ concert hall tour and the rocking ‘No Strings Attached’ outing a year later.

Today’s Eels are closer to the latter, making a focal point out of traditional rock music. Of all the apparent influences on show, 80s Prince is probably the most recent (on closer ‘Go Eels!’), while a couple of faithful covers of 60s singles better signpost the band’s focus. ‘Oh Well’, originally by Fleetwood Mac, provides an early foray into classic guitar heroism, which is matched later on by new material, not least the Waits-ian riffs behind recent single ‘New Alphabet’.

Much like the accompanying album, the current live set-up is all about Team Eels. They’re ostensibly a team by virtue of their matching triple-striped tracksuits and beards, their nicknames, and their frequent breaks to sustain an insistent intra-band hugging regime. Taking matters a step further, E and guitarist The Chet celebrated ten years of their musical relationship with a mid-set renewal of vows led by bassist Honest Al and concluded by drummer Knuckles’ tongue-in-cheek chorus of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’. But the sense of unity on stage went beyond the costume choices (where only a flat cap marks E out from his mates) – the ensemble was intuitively secure, and it would be a huge surprise if it turned out that they hadn’t written the music together.

Blinking Lights will probably be remembered as the end of Eels’ golden age, so it was no surprise when pre-Revelations entries provided some of the setlist highlights. What was a bit surprising was how dramatic the shift to audience euphoria was when the likes of ‘The Sound of Fear’ and ‘Souljacker Part 1’ popped up – the mood beforehand was staid by comparison.

Most memorable was ‘My Beloved Monster’. Although the Shrek soundtrack favourite has been through countless live incarnations, its current format would have been as close as a performance will get to the original album track, were it not for the band’s frequent, seamless segues between it and parts of ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues’. It was an unexpected mash-up, somewhat removed from any previous Eels live fare, but the band pulled it off brilliantly.

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