Wednesday, July 2, 2014

eels at Royal Albert Hall, 30th June 2014

Maybe booking tickets to a gig the very day I arrive back from Glastonbury wasn't the best idea in the world.  I'd partied my little heart out until 7am that morning before grubbily hopping on a coach to London and shuffling zombie-like back home.  Perhaps, I thought, I should skip this gig.  After all I haven't really slept in days, I've watched tons of live music and, to rub salt into the wound, it's just started raining.  I was so done with rain at this point.

If it were any other band I'd have shrugged, climbed underneath a big blanket and enjoyed 12 hours of loglike slumber.  But eels aren't just any other band.  The very first album I ever bought was their debut Beautiful Freak back in 1996, and the subsequent releases Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy meant an awful lot to teenage me.  Their high water mark was the 2005 release of their magnum opus Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, and attending one of the best concerts of my life at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall to see it played live.  Since then I had the uneasy feeling that eels had settled into an overfamiliar rut.  They put out a run of middling albums (all of which I dutifully listened to once) populated by melancholy tracks punctuated with one wearily upbeat song to close out.  It had all got a bit formulaic. 

Even so, I've been an eels fan through thick and thin and even exhausted and fuzzy-headed I'm going to drag myself down to see them at the Royal Albert Hall.  Supporting was Melanie De Biasio, an ethereal singer whose minimalist, haunting compositions completely filled the enormous auditorium.  She was amazing.  I instantly fell asleep.  As I jerked back to consciousness I thought maybe this was a bad idea: if I slept through an eels concert I'd absolutely hate myself.

Photo by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen
These fears were instantly banished as E took to the stage.  Reassurringly bearded and dressed in a simple grey suit, his husky voice enveloped me like a much-loved old coat.  With his similarly suited band behind him surrounded by a jumble-sale of acoustic instruments everything seemed right in the world.  After a short instrumental introduction he sat down at his piano and began a straight up heartbreaking cover of When You Wish Upon a Star.  My malfunctioning brain, already perched on an emotional knife-edge, was sent into a total tizzy, my eyes welling up and a lump forming in my throat that remained for the rest of the gig.

There's a strange disconnect at the heart of eels. E is a famed purveyor of misery; a man who converts the loss, depression and bereavement in his life into (as he describes it) "sweet, soft, bummer rock" so beautiful it may as well whip out a scalpel and go straight for the my heart. Emotional highlights are a crushingly sad A Daisy Through Concrete that had me sniffling quietly into my drink and the disturbingly morbid Gentlemen's Choice: "The life that I've led / I'm better off dead / The world has no room for my kind".  You just want to give him a big hug.

And, amazingly, we can.  Despite his morose lyrics E is a remarkably chipper chap.  In fact he's often full on hilarious, explaining that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones once played this stage on the same night, and bending down to kiss the floor where John Lennon once stood, before wiping his lips and remarking that that spot tasted more like Keith Richards.  As he self-deprecatingly apologises for his songs being so depressing (introducing It's a Motherfucker as "a next-level bummer") it's almost as if we're going through therapy alongside him, the audience sensing that it's our participation and applause that's spurring him on.  The emotional climax comes towards the end when E beams out at us and says he wants to give us all a big hug.
Photo by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen
He proceeds to do just that.  Clambering off stage he makes his way around the vast room, hugging everyone on his way.  Countless people with tears in their eyes embrace him with open arms.  He must have hugged about a hundred people by the time he makes his way on stage ten minutes later, his suit and hair rumpled.  He then explains that he's going to ditch the encore bullshit and get straight back to business.

After Blinking Lights and Last Stop: This Town, the band leave the stage and the audience rises to their feet and raises the roof with the most enthusiastic applause I've heard in a very long time.  Boots are stamped on the floor, hoarse cheering drifts up the rafters and palms turn an angry shade of red as they're enthusiastically beaten together.  A consensus quickly forms among the crowd that we're not going to stop until they return to the stage - which, after ten minutes of this din, they do.  The tip-top of the second encore is an absolutely wonderful piano cover of Can't Help Falling in Love, E's warm, sad voice injecting a ridiculous amount of pathos into the song.  

More crazy applause.  Still the house lights don't come up.  What can they possibly do to top this?  Earlier in the night E had bemoaned that the last time he played here they wouldn't let him anywhere near the Royal Albert Hall's famous pipe organ - not without joining The Royal Society of Pipe Organists anyway.  He vows that one day he'll get to play it... One day...
Photo by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen
Suddenly the lights dim and maniacal laughter rings through the room.  A huge sheet drops to reveal E, dressed in round shades and a theatrical cape standing in front of the organ.  With a silly, joyous grin on his face he sits down and blasts out a instrumental version of The Sound of Fear and Flyswatter on the gigantic instrument.  Woooooooooooooow.

It's the perfect end to an absolutely perfect night.  eels remain one of the warmest, musically proficient, sad, funny and straight up most entertaining live bands around.  As we filed out in the London night, a bounce in our step, audience consensus was that we'd seen something really special.  This was a performance to treasure.

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