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The Eels (Tuesday, June 21st, 2005, Pantages Theatre, Minneapolis)
E (Mark Everett) of the Eels - Publicity Photo

By Wes Holmes

The Eels: headed up by the “one deeply disturbed permanent member” of E (Mark Everett), a string quartet and two multi-instrumentalists came to Minneapolis’ Pantages Theatre last night and played through most of their new record, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.

Blinking Lights is the double-record story of E starting out with his birth and taking us to the twilight of a grandfather’s reflections, with recurring musical themes in between. Rolling Stone (and I’m not in the habit of reading Rolling Stone) calls it “a concept album about God.” I’d say it’s more of a concept album about living. But let’s talk about the show, before we get to that.

After showing a ten minute Russian short film (in stop-frame animation) and what seemed like a bizarre commercial for the band (for their movie), Eels with Strings began covering a three hour span of musical space. Given the lack of drum set on stage, I assumed I wouldn’t be carried through the night with standard Eels rock-refrains of “Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day!” Instead, I hunkered down for what could be a very boring evening with a very bizarre man.

The first hour stuck to slow, two-minute strums, mostly from Blinking Lights. E came out, puffing his cigar in a suit and started playing pretend. He became the “playtime professor,” directing the strings with his cigar, flicking the ashes into a knee-high ashtray while singing, only setting it down to work the pump organ or the piano.

Each song was short and the transitions between songs were quick as instruments switched and a new song begun immediately. I wasn’t bored. It surprised me, but despite the same, slow feeling, my attention was held in by the new instrumentation and by how amazingly beautiful E’s scratchy voice can be live. During a song like “I Need Some Sleep,” E’s broken, alien falsetto rang out like an alarm.

Eventually, the gig was up, E took a trashcan cover off of some drums behind multi-instrumentalist The Chet. It was hard to see, but he seemed to be using a metal suitcase as the hi-hat and playing a snare set in a barrel. That o the snare and kick were electric (I couldn’t tell). The drums were sparingly pulled out to give a mild rock feel, then E would collapse at the piano and feign exhaustion—“I need to catch my breath after all that rock.”

Overall, the short songs and new arrangements worked to the band’s benefit. They covered a lot of ground (playing old favorites: “Birds”, “Novocain for the Soul” and “Beautiful Freak”), but at times it was at the expense of taking advantage of wonderful musical moments (no pedal steel solo at the end of “Grace Kelly Blues”). However, the creepy reworking of “Novocain” and Dylan cover of “Girl from the North Country” sounded great.

The band was called back for four encores including the fist-pumping “Hey Man” and the thickly percussive “Dog Faced Boy.” Then, the lights were brought up and I left.

I left and apparently the Eels returned to the stage in pajamas and played “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” for about 75 people. I learned this today and want to cry.

For one of their 5 encores, the strings struck up “Grace Kelly Blues.” I perhaps am biased in believing this is one of the most hopeful and beautiful pop tunes ever written. But the audience, some on their feet, clapped and yelled at E’s sung proclamation, “Sun melting the fake smile away, you know I think I’ll be ok.”

Nevertheless, it was that song, which struck me the deepest. Far too much critical ground has been covered with E’s personal story (sister’s suicide, mother’s slow, cancerous death, etc…). While many of his songs are steeped in tragedy, he celebrates life so deeply. It’s just that reason why, though they’ve been without a hit for many years, Eels fans are so rabid. That’s why an audience will clap for you, not when you’ve entertained them, but when you’ve helped them. It’s something unique to E: his ability to connect not with a singer-songwriter out-pouring of the heart, but with a dark, intricate view of life.