Friday, June 23, 2006

The Eels – Astoria London

It seems only a few months ago that I saw The Eels at The Royal Albert Hall on their Eels with Strings tour – in fact it was October last year. That said – I’m not sure even a nine month absence was enough to prepare fans for the dramatic difference between this new show and the previous Eels visit.
Kicking off at 8:15pm with squalling feedback that led into ‘The Other Shoe’ and ‘Old Shit/New Shit’ – the current incarnation of The Eels is a lean three-piece (well-technically a four-piece with onstage bouncer “Crazy Al” assisting with occasional back-up vocals and instrumentation - but more on that later) of two guitars and drums focusing on the more rock material from their extensive back-catalog.
If calling the tour “No Strings Attached” wasn’t enough to highlight the difference between this and previous shows – the band issue a musical statement of intent with a cover of Peaches (featuring Iggy Pop) single ‘Rock Show’ – sample lyrics: “You came to see a rockshow/A big gigantic cock show” and “You came to see a rock show/This isn't a fuckin' talk show”.
Singer/songwriter E – took this last verse seriously, not saying a thing to the crowd all night. Instead all onstage introductions and between song quips where issued by the looming figure of bearded and bald security guy Crazy Al (AKA Alan Hunter – who keen eyed fans, and Kimbo, recognized as the double-bassist for the previous tours With Strings line-up). Al’s introductions ranged from the sincere (“This is dedicated to our favorite band in the universe…. Smoosh” – who supported earlier and rejoined the band for encores) to the ridiculous (“I know the deal when I see it….. this is the deal!”).
In fact – apart from the band dressing in a confusing mix of military uniforms: drummer Derek “Knuckles” Brown was in full American Civil War outfit, guitarist Chet “The Chet” Lyster went with standard baggy greens and a Che Grevara style hat, E on the other hand went with a Fifties-style aviator hat and glasses - most of the onstage showmanship came from Crazy Al. This included some Elvis style karate-dancing, employing props like a phone for ‘The Other Shoe’ and lifting weights during another. He still found time to ensure E’s personal security – at one stage during a particularly rawkus solo – shooing guitarist The Chet back to his side of the stage so he didn’t get too close to E.
Musically the show most reminded me of the 2003 Tour Of Duty for the guitar-heavy “Shootenanny” record. Employing the twin-guitar approach for the first half-dozen or so songs – including a cover of Willie Dixon’s ‘Crazy Love’ (Crazy Al’s theme tune?), and a few non-LP rarities like ‘Eyes Down’ from the “Holes” film soundtrack, and b-side ‘After The Operation’.
It was when E switched to keyboards that things really came together for me – highlight was a slower-tempo reading of ‘Last Stop: This Town’, a great cover of Tom Wait’s ‘Jesus Gonna Be Here’ with The Chet on lead vocals, and ‘Dirty Girl’. A few songs from their 1996 debut album “Beautiful Freak” also got an airing – ‘Rags To Rags’, a countrified ‘My Beloved Monster’ and a lengthy ‘Not Ready Yet’ that seemed to run for 10-15 mins – including a mid-song break where E went off-stage and Crazy Al continued his guitar-playing for him.
Not surprisingly, it was the material from the guitar-heavy “Souljacker” album - ‘Souljacker Pt1’ and ‘Dog Faced Boy’ - that worked best when E returned to second guitar.
The main set closed on an odd-note with show-tune style covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’.
The band quickly returned for a two song encore of ‘Cancer For The Cure’ and a hyper-paced ‘I Like Birds’. The two girls in Smoosh ran on-stage mid-song like hysterical Beatles fans complete with Crazy Al chasing (but strangely never catching) them. The Smoosh girls assisted on backing vocals, and it was a great sight to see Crazy Al having to lift them to the microphone so they could call out “birds” for the ‘I Like Birds’ one word chorus.
With that the band went offstage and the houselights went up – however word of The Eels encore trickery has clearly spread, and only about a third of the crowd left. A fairly good clue that the band would return was that the PA was playing a muzak version of The Eels ‘Saturday Morning’ – which they then returned to play with the houselights on.
Unfortunately this has become something of a boy-who-cried-wolf situation, because when the band did leave the stage and the PA music came on – most of the crowd refused to go until 10-15 minutes later when the venue security started clearing people away.
As always a fantastic – andt very different - show from a fantastic and unpredictable band. You have to give E some kudos – he can write great songs and produce great records, but he loves to buck conventions and always tries to come out with something a little different – unexpected encore, an all-strings tour, onstage bouncer, rearrangements of his best-known songs, crazy cover versions – to push the boundaries of what is expected from a live concert. Good on him.
Thanks to for the photos.