The air was thick with hip Monday night as trendy indie chicks 'n dudes filed into their velvet-upholstered assigned seats at the Pantages. With its decorative facades and blue curtainry, it was an odd place to see a rock 'n roll show--the atmosphere was quirky and chill, but at the same time, one half-expected a group of Shakespeareans to mob the stage for some impromptu Lear.
And indeed, the first course at the Eels buffet was more theatrical than musical: a screening of Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, a documentary following Eels' frontman Mark Oliver Everett (known to most as E), in his efforts to reconnect with the work and life of his late father, Hugh Everett III--the physicist responsible for parallel universe theory. For centering on the collision of a living rock star and a dead quantum physicist, the film was surprisingly conventional. But E's frank manner combined with many genuinely touching moments during interviews with his fathers' friends and former colleagues made for a sincere and enjoyable work.
The theatrics didn't end once E appeared in the flesh. Alone at the piano under the glare of a spotlight, he held a brief pre-show pep talk with a God-like voice from the speakers, then launched into an album-perfect, rasp-voiced rendition of "It's a Motherfucker." The band entered from stage left with a flourish, composed (on this tour at least) entirely of guitar/harmonium/musical saw prodigy The Chet (also known as Jeffrey Lyster). As the Eels combined, E shouted "Are you ready to SOFT ROCK, Minneapolis?!"
One of the great strengths of E's songcraft is that Eels songs are each distinct from the next, covering an insane range of emotions and subjects from depression and suicide to wide-eyed puppy love--but they all sound very much like Eels' songs. Live, Eels preserve this signature sound almost to a fault. Where many bands make conscious changes to their songs in concert, E chooses to replicate his studio performance as accurately as possible.
The display of precision was most impressive when each of the musical pair was required to change instruments two or three times during a song. An epically extended version of "Flyswatter" initially featured E on piano and The Chet on drums...and then The Chet on piano and E on drums...and then back again, all without breaking the jam. And though only two instruments were ever being played at once throughout the show, the music never came close to sounding thin.
Every Eels song feels like a window into E's inner thoughts; if the man has but one gift, it is conveying utter sincerity. But one moment in particular laid open bare emotion like a vein. During a break, The Chet read from E's autobiography, Things Grandchildren Should Know; the passage dealt with his sister Elizabeth's suicide. After E returned home after her funeral, his neighbor, unaware of why he had been gone, claimed to have seen the ghost of a young woman entering E's house while he was away. A shivering hush fell over the crowd as The Chet finished the passage and E started to sing "Last Stop This Town": "You're dead but the world keeps spinning/Take a spin through the world you left/It's getting dark a little too early/Are you missing the dearly bereft?"