The gawky, bearded man in the spotlight turns slightly on his piano stool. “Yeah?”
“MARK OSCAR EVERETT!”
“It’s Oliver, actually.”
The voice booming from the speakers falters for a second. “MARK… OLIVER EVERETT. THIS IS YOUR LIFE!”
There is a pause. And in the most hangdog voice possible, the man known throughout his career simply as ‘E’ answers: “Great.”
You couldn’t have hoped for more. You wouldn’t have expected less. The most individual, eccentric, heartfelt and downright astonishing talent to come out of America since Kurt Cobain is in London to promote his greatest hits and rarities package, Meet The Eels/ Useless Trinkets and his autobiography, Things The Grandkids Should Know, and he’s going to do it his way. This means booming voices from speakers. A Queen impersonator in the royal box. Book readings. Fanmail readings. An hour-long documentary as a support act. Then, finally, two hours of the most heartbreaking, uplifting music to ever grace the austere Royal Festival Hall.
Eels – really just a musical extension of the subconscious of songwriter Mark ‘E’ Everett – have quietly produced some of the best American rock records of the last 12 years, and Everett has developed a huge cult following thanks as much to his personal life as his music. The son of a world-renowned physicist (about whom the evening’s opening BBC documentary, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, shown on a giant sheet at the front of the stage, is about), Everett endured the death of his entire family before the release of his second record, the bleak Electroshock Blues, and the breakdown of his marriage before hitting 40. So for a singer whose output is intrinsically tied to his personal demons – this is less a straightforward concert, more a retrospective of his own life.
And what a life. Take a read of his autobiography – you won’t regret it. For a man who can include songs called It’s a Motherfucker and Novocaine For The Soul in his set, he’s the most well-adjusted, genial host you could want for over two hours, reading abusive fanmail and derogatory reviews to the audience, and joking about whether the ‘Queen’ in the audience likes the loud songs or the quiet ones, “I think she likes to rock…” It’s this that makes much of tonight’s concert almost unbearably moving – instead of moping about the stage like a lovelorn Morrissey, Everett has taken everything that life has thrown at him and come out joking.
One of the highlights of the concert, the tender Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor, about his sister’s suicide, is delivered without any fanfare at all, and is beautiful enough to reduce grown men to sobs.
Beginning the concert alone, swamped in a harsh spotlight, E is joined only by one other person during the concert, multi-instrumentalist The Chet, who runs though an impressive repertoire of guitar, drums, piano and vibraphone at points during the evening, and is used as a sounding board for E’s quips (“You know, Chet, you and the Queen have a lot in common. For a start, both your first names are ‘The’”). The stripped-down approach, with E alternating between strummed electric guitar and piano, adds to the emotional rawness of the event, and even opener, one of his most optimistic songs A Magic World (“Ten pounds and a head of hair/ Came into without a care/ What they thought were cries/Were little laughs”), feels like E slicing open his body and proffering his still-beating heart for clinical audience assessment.
All this seems to point towards a misery-fest, but E’s good humour – including allowing The Chet to read some of the most embarrassing excerpts of his book to the audience in silly voices – and the ultimately uplifting sentiments of even the darkest of songs is enough to turn this into a cathartic experience for all involved. Four songs from the emotionally-drained Electroshock Blues record, Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor, Climbing To The Moon, Last Stop: This Town and the final, astonishing PS You Rock My World are as hopeful for a light at the end of the tunnel as anything you could want to hear. This closer, with the lines “I was thinking ’bout how/ Everyone is dying/ And maybe it is time to live” is a perfect epithet for the concert – E’s wide-eyed hope springing eternal as everything around him goes to shit.
And they know how to rock out too. Chet and E swap instruments without missing a beat on the raucous Flyswatter, and they turn breakthrough first single Novocaine For The Soul into a thrashy, disinterested grunge-fest worthy of Nirvana. And during the joyous I Want to Protect You and Led Zeppelin cover Good Times Bad Times, the hushed, reverential spell is broken and the audience begins tapping their feet and singing along. Everett grins. This really is his life.