I showed up at the Eel’s concert Wednesday night and I wasn’t the only person there all alone (temporarily! honest) in a leather jacket and jeans. A rare Ray Charles song was playing. Strangely, nobody was smoking, and there was a range of ages and stereotypes in the crowd. How often do you go to a rock show where nobody smokes? Eels fans are different.
In fact, the Eels are different. The band came out without its lead singer, E, and started playing some heavy bass and drums. Then the spotlights started searching the crowd. Some guys carried a box through the crowd, and E popped out of the box and hopped onstage. It was cool. The Eels were the most mainstream when Weezer came out. Maybe you remember their first big hit, “Novocaine for the Soul,” from 1996. It ought to be a Yale anthem: “Life is hard, and so am I / You’d better give me something so I don’t die. Novocaine for the soul, before I sputter out.” Ah, the angst of youth. And E, or rather, Mark E. Everett, is big on that: “I like to address my speeches to America’s youth — It might not be apparent, but things are gonna get better when you get outta the cage.” He was talking about the Toad’s cage and the metaphorical cage. What a guy.
I had come prepared to be depressed out of my mind, but I wasn’t. Although the Eels are in the Wilco realm of Generation X-ers in love with Neil Young and experimenting with rock ‘n’ roll, they have a lot more energy than Wilco, and their experimentation won’t give you a headache. E is like a philosophical Elvis (post-rehab) fronting for Creedence and Folk Implosion rolled into one. “How’s everybody doing so far?” asked E. “How about that sports thing? How about the weather we’ve been having? Yeah — but luckily, we can all warm our hands by the cozy fire of rock.” The COZY FIRE OF ROCK! Then the Eels got the flames roaring with “Souljacker Part 1,” which has some dangerous slide guitar over an edgy beat. The whole crowd was ungracefully thrashing and bopping about. The Eels calmed things down a bit every once in a while with songs like “Daisies of the Galaxy” and “Packing Blankets,” which is perhaps the most bittersweet song ever written. Yet they kept the crowd going with driving beats, insistent bass lines, and dueling guitars, such as on “Dirty Girl” and “Dog Faced Boy.” But going to see a band like the Eels is to listen to intense — and intensely personal — music. It may be a rock concert, but it’s not the kind of rock where you thrust your fist out and scream. It’s the kind of rock where you sit in your room alone and listen, wishing you could turn the volume up to concert level.
In short, the band is incredible. I mean, how many bands around these days play four encores? Yeah, Four Encores. I think they had it all planned. I think they knew. The first time they ended the show, E gave a speech during a quiet span in “Love of the Loveless.” “There are a lot of people these days that think that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t matter anymore, but I can tell you about at least one life that rock and roll has saved, and that’s my own — it may sound corny — There’s something I’d like you to do tonight, or tomorrow if it’s more convenient — Why don’t you go and treat yourself to somethin’.” E then introduced the band and gave a “Thank you.” The music stopped and the band headed offstage just long enough for the crowd to stomp through the floor.
The first encore began: “‘Cause we were just about to drive to the next town and we heard all that applause — has this ever happened before? — I’m on a rock-and-roll high right now — and heroin — it’s a heady combination.” They played a song called “Skywriting,” which E dedicated “to our old friend Elliott,” which was a really beautiful, quiet song: “No one ever dies, they just write things in the sky.” At the end of the song, E gave one of his bandmates a hug. They played “Ant Farm,” and then wrapped up the encore with “Grace Kelly Blues,” overall a mellow end to a rock concert.
So of course they had to play a second encore, the sad but hopeful “Somebody Loves You.” And then E said, “See ya around,” and we believed him. I turned towards the t-shirt and paraphernalia area, noticed that the Eels are on their “Tour of Duty,” and then they were onstage again. Wow! But we were fed another mellow song — who wants to leave a concert after three mellow encores? Not the Eels. No, they like things their way, and their way is weird. All of a sudden, the Star Spangled Banner was playing, there were little lights covering the stage backdrop like stars, and three red light bulbs were hanging in front of them. The Eels were nowhere to be found. What the hell? The song ended, the lights came back on, and everyone looked confused. I ran to the bathroom and, as I was washing my hands, heard the bass through the ceiling. Encore Number Four.
Like I said, they had to have had this planned: if you’re gonna close a rock show, close it like the Eels. The real fun stuff came back out: E was howling something like “I’m the king of the jungle” when a petite blonde jumped onstage for a minute or two. E was mike-swinging, rock ‘n’ roll screaming, karate-kicking and punching playfully at the audience, and then he jumped on some guy’s back, and the guy ran out of the room. End of show.
The same ’50s bop music came on, and it was like David Lynch had designed the show. Amazing.