There is something to be said for downtown Minneapolis at the end of a beautiful early summer day. The air is a little softer limbs move a bit more freely. Downtown fans, be they baseball or music, exude a sense of relaxed anticipation. Aside from a cursory listen to the new album The Deconstruction, I was unfamiliar with The Eels’ body of work. But that feeling of anticipation was palpable when I walked into First Avenue.
A few minutes past 8pm the screen went up to reveal the Magic Pipe; what can only be described as a Rube Goldberg musical contraption. That 1 Guy, who took to the stage must be the only human being who can not only play it but understand it. Suffice to say, the shiny metallic pipe looks more like steam machine for eliminating wrinkles in your favorite shirt than a full electronic band.
Mike Silverman, aka That 1 Guy, applies bows, fingers, hands and toes to various spots on the Magic Pipe to produce the sounds of stand up bass, cello, violin and percussion. Incorporated loop stations allow him build layers. Vocal effects are added when and where desired. It took exactly one song for the near capacity crowd to engage, watch and listen in rapt amazement. Unless you have seen this lanky, hobo virtuoso previously you’ve never seen anything like this. I now understood the rationale behind his win at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Mecca for the original artist.
Silverman fully understands how audiences react to him. He is self-deprecating, bumbling and kinetic in a discombobulated fashion. By itself, the musical soundscapes he creates would be entertaining. The Vaudeville layered on top brought the show to a whole new level of entertainment. During the third song of the 30 minute set he donned a duck sock puppet, run through a loop station, to provide a vocal track before lighting up the Pipe. My notes say things like: “That thing packs a wallop!” as a bartender laughs and says: “This guy is a trip!”
He introduced his next song as being written for whales; whereby he reduces the vibrations in his vocal chords by half in order to achieve sound below the threshold of human hearing. While not technically true the following aquatic exploration certainly had a bottom end that tested all of First Avenue’s unmatched sound system. It struck me that Frank Zappa would have understood what he was up to.
What’s a stage show without card tricks, sock puppets and hobo boots lending a hand when the player runs out of hands? This show was all about incorporating the visual and sound. Lyrics are down the priority list despite a little gem in the penultimate song as he growls: “The honey tastes sweeter when you anger the bee!” A werewolf howl is met with a howl back from the audience. The pack is running. Turning on a dime he morphs into a tongue in cheek, smoky jazz club scooby dooby number where he riffs on the need for the young people of today to learn the mysteries of Jazz.
That 1 Guy walks to a loud ovation and another werewolf howl.
Can things get stranger? No. But if anybody wonders if what comes next will return to normalcy, forget about it. After only ten minutes the screen was on its way up. However, the stage remained empty as Beach Boys played. An array of 50’s looking incandescent lamps ringed a stage with a back drop that gave the impression of a dark cave. During the fifteen minutes that followed before The Eels took the stage I am struck by the fact that this was a crowd that came of age in the early ’90’s. And that unlike me, they knew exactly what was coming. First Avenue is jammed and there is a buzz of anticipation.
The theme from Rocky at massive volume announces the band. Driving force E, slightly built, clad in denim, pork pie hat and signature steam punk sunglasses comes out rocking hard with The Who’s Out In The Street. Echoes of of Daltry with his leather lunged howls. The band then immediately downshifts into Prince’s Raspberry Beret, re-imagined. The heavy, brooding beat seems to set us all off balance.
But that’s what The Eels do. What we hear and see is close to what we expect a band to be. But our minds tell us something isn’t quite right. E will perform from stage right. His band, The Chet on lead guitar, Big Al on bass and Little Joe on drums form a trio in the center of the stage. They have installed a riser with a cut out section in the center to accommodate a swiveling floor light which is often used to give E a slightly off kilter, shadow elongated look. The stage is minimalist yet clearly very theatrical.
At the end of Raspberry Beret he growls “This is Fun!” and the band rolls into my favorite song of the evening, Bone Dry from the new album. E moves and shambles around his microphone like a deconstructed zombie. The crowd loves it and gets really loud. The band is preaching to the choir.
The band keeps right on rolling, built on heavy distorted guitar work by The Chet. Throughout this section of the show E bangs shakers, castanets and tambourine. Moving as though a puppet on a string manipulated by a slightly spastic master. When he sings “Life ain’t pretty for a dog faced boy” it all seems to align.
E straps on a guitar and bellows at the crowd: Do you wanna Soft Rock? What follows is more heartfelt, a kind of Escovedo type ballad. Sadness layered on chiming guitars. At the conclusion he turns to the band and says to the band: “Well, that was really nice, fellas. Let’s try another of that ilk!” Another simple melody as he croons about a wide eyed girl with a dirty mouth. One more quiet ditty before rolling hard back into heavy rock with Prizefighter followed up by Rusty Pipes which has a Captain Beefheart feel, right down to a chord progression in the chorus which sets you off balance.
As the show progresses I find myself quickly becoming a fan. I muse about how unique this band really is without being totally out there. Somehow it all fits, right down to the band name. The songs just kind of slither and undulate along. The band is a bit creepy but not threatening. The Eels are clad in black. The stage seems an underwater cave. It’s a high level meeting between art, theater and rock with firmly tongue in cheek sensibilities. You’re supposed to take them and their moody, self loathing, desultory lyrics seriously. Even though they don’t. How many bands introduce their new drummer Little Joe with a little ditty of that name which could have been directly lifted from Sesame Street?
In one of his few moments of seeming seriousness, E thanks the First Avenue crowd and informs us how much they love the venue. Reports that The Eels have recorded two live albums in these friendly confines. Then admits that they’ve never released them because they are “just for us”. They love to listen to themselves.
After a solid 75 minutes the band exit the stage before returning to do a remarkable rendition of Prince’s When You Were Mine. My first reaction was that you should never do two covers by the same artist. Then I thought it was unnecessary pandering to a crowd and place that already loved them. However, they took me to deeper, more desolate layers of this classic that I’d never considered. This was a slow, incredibly emotional delivery built on slightly minor keys. When E sings the chorus: “I know (I know) That you’re going with another guy. I don’t care (don’t care). Cause I love you, baby, that’s no lie. I love you more than I did when you were mine.”… his heart bleeds on the stage.
It’s quick, it’s simple and the band again leaves the stage. But the screen stays up, the stage remains lit and the crowd clamors for more. And waits and waits and waits. Once more, those early resentments toward rock star self indulgence begin to build in me. E walks out alone to his microphone and explains that while he would very much like to play some more, his band is more interested in calling it quits. They want to go do that rock star after party thing. But he assures us that the “Rock Bell” might just call them back to class. He raises a single silver sleigh bell and tinkles in front of the microphone repeatedly to no avail. Growing impatient he grabs an air horn and lets it rip. It works and the band goes back to work with a three song set comprised of Mr E.’s Beautiful Blues, Fresh Blood, a red drenched ode to Robert Durst concluding with a Love and Mercy medley.
As he left the stage he thanked Brian Wilson, Pete Townshend and Prince. In a normal world it’s unlikely you would find those three in the same sentence, let alone same show. But in the quantum physics parallel universe of The Eels it makes perfect sense. The show was a delight and I’ll be digging into more Eels immediately.