I got to see a pretty unique concert last night at the Park West, featuring the band the Eels. It was pretty unique in that instead of going with the traditional opening band, they instead chose to show a documentary instead.
Here's some quick background on the Eels: The band is mainly one guy, Mark Oliver Everett, a.k.a. E. E was a solo artist in the early 90's, then formed the Eels right as the alternative radio boom was happening in the mid-90's. They had a few near hit singles back then, especially "Novocaine for the Soul," which I guarantee you've heard on one of those 90's at Lunch radio programs.
Right as the Eels were breaking through, E's luck went in the opposite direction. He found out that his sister had committed suicide, and within months of that, his mother had passed away from cancer. Obviously this had a pretty strong effect on E, and he went on to write "Electro-Shock Blues," one of the most difficult albums to make it through that you'll ever hear. After that, he was able to turn things around made some incredible albums, include the deceptively bright "Daisies of the Galaxy," the rocking "Souljacker," and one of 2005's best albums, "Blinking Lights and Other Revelations." In his best moments, E's songs can be heartbreaking, beautiful and life-affirming, all in the same songs at times.
The documentary, however, focused on events and one person that affected E's life before all of that. It turns out that his father was a brilliant physics expert, who in 1952 basically created the idea of alternate universes. E, despite living at home with his father for his young years, never really knew him or how famous he was in the phyiscs world, since they barely spoke at home, and around the time he was 18, E found his father dead in his room.
The documentary, "Parallel Universes, Parallel Lives," (made by the BBC), shows E tracking down the places his father worked, from Stanford to the Pentagon, to try to learn more about his father, his theory, and how his father is now regarded with equal esteem as Albert Einstein in the quantum mechanics world. It's a fascinating documentary, shedding more light on the bizarre genius of E and of his father's world.
The actual performance almost took a back seat to the documentary. E performed with only one other musician, regular Eels member the Chett (or just Chett last night, as E became "the E"). This was one of the drawbacks to the show, however. When you buy a ticket to see the Eels, you really never know what you are going to get. In the last four tours through Chicago, they first played as a rollicking garage band for the Souljacker tour, then they played nearly as a chamber pop group for the first time through town with Blinking Lights (complete with a mini-string section). A few months later, the band hit Lollapalooza 2005 as a no-holds-barred rocking band, complete with Krazy Al, the kung-fu dancing security guard.
This tour was to promote a combo of recent releases, the Eels have put out a greatest hits cd, a 2 cd collection of odds and ends and B-sides, and preview tour for a book E has released to chronicle his life's story. In order to avoid the egotistic move of doing a reading from his book during the show, E decided to have Chett do the readings instead, to great comic effect.
As I said though, the two-man combo unfortunately didn't pay off with most of the songs, especially after seeing them tear through the same songs with the full band lineup. Some songs still came off brilliantly, like "It's a Motherf--ker" and of course "Novocaine for the Soul." It was especially great watching them do "Trouble with Dreams," and switching piano and drums mid-song, even mid-beat.
It was definitely one of the most revealing nights I've ever seen for an artist, mainly because of the documentary of course, but E's songs have always had a large chunk of his life hiding just under the surface. My advice to you, dear reader, is to definitely pick up "Daisies of the Galaxy," "Souljacker" and "Blinking Lights," and keep an eye out for the documentary, if it is ever aired in America.