London W1 Dominion Theatre

London W1 Dominion Theatre

The mind boggles at what might actually pass for 'bizarre' in the world of [a]Eels[/a]...

The mind boggles at what might actually pass for ‘bizarre’ in the world of [a]Eels[/a]. After all, they’re the band who donned 18th-century funeral togs for their last London date, who eke uplifting ecstasies from cancer, dementia and death. So when the band, minus E but including new live Eel Lisa Germano, open with an overture incorporating the melodies of the band’s greatest ‘hits’ (augmented by a two-man brass section dressed as an accountant and a department store Santa, natch), no-one blinks an eyelid. Hey, it’s [a]Eels[/a]. Weird is what they do.

So E strides on, blue denim trucker’s ensemble clashing nicely with his rhythm section’s OK Corral chic, sits at his saloon-bar piano and pounds out a sensual take on Nina Simone‘s ‘Feeling Good’. Later on, he’ll cover ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ with all the majesty drummer Butch Norton‘s rumbling timpanis can muster; in between, he’ll croon his finest music-box symphonies, juggling gallows humour and naked tenderness with ease. You might justifiably fear the worst eclectic rock crimes, but as with so many of pop’s unlikely treasures, you really had to be there.

Those initial Beck comparisons now seem so wide of the mark; [a]Eels[/a] may share the boy Hansen‘s sonic magpie-isms, but E maps that musical playfulness emotionally, eschewing the zeitgeist for the personal. Beck could never pull off the touching, Big Star-esque innocence of ‘Jeannie’s Diary’, or the disquieting ‘I Like Birds’, which E, lacking such self-consciousness, does with grace and glee.

E‘s closer to that other ’90s blond alt-waif, Kurt Cobain, whose crushing sensitivity and tendency to be totally subsumed by feeling and emotion, resound throughout ‘Sound Of Fear’ and ‘Ant Farm’, where E sounds like a little boy lost in situations he can’t escape or even understand. Crucially, though, E has the emotional equilibrium to make sense of this terror, creating songs as cherishable as ‘PS You Rock My World’, songs which simultaneously scrape the heart’s highest peaks and darkest depths. Tonight, sumptuously rendered by the six-piece band, it strikes chords still ringing from The Flaming Lips’ last UK jaunt.

“Bring me my bongos!” yells E, as the band begin ‘Hospital Food’. Beating wildly at the hand-drums like Andy Kaufman‘s kindred spirit, he’s a Dadaist with a heart, cheating the failure his wildly ambitious muse and blind bravery [I]should [/I]deliver him. Always contrary, and always completely enchanting.