There was stunned silence as the gigantic clown took the stage. Dressed in shiny white fabric with navy blue poofy buttons and a golden jester crown upon his bald head, Puddles Pity Party stepped up to the microphone and belted out operatic covers of old standards. There were uncomfortable groans from several members of the audience, myself included. I don’t have a full on case of Coulrophobia, but if I saw a clown walking down the street, you better believe I’d cross to walk on the other side. I blame my brothers for forcing me to watch Killer Klowns from Outer Space at too young an age. I still remember the first time I heard my uncommon name on television: Audra Denbrough in Steven King’s miniseries, It. Then came the creepy clown, Pennywise. Puddles was joined on stage by a polka dot dress, monkey masked crony brandishing a bushel of bananas. MonkeyZuma proceeded to eat a banana, toss a few into the crowd then perch upon the edge of the stage, stroking one for the rest of the set. It was one of the most bizarre and disturbing performance pieces I have ever seen. Pretty much standard fare for the beginning of an Eels show.
The official opening act, Nicole Atkins, followed, but to be honest with you, everyone was still recovering from the clown. Atkins, while gifted with a lovely voice and a snarky wit, was completely overshadowed. She hardly spoke to the crowd and rushed through her solo set.
Every Eels show is a different experience, thanks to careful planning by the mastermind behind the band, E. When guitarist P-Boo took the stage alone and belted out the opening riff to “Bombs Away,” the first track of the band’s tenth studio album Wonderful, Glorious, there was no doubt that this would be a rock show. Band members joined the stage one at a time: drummer Knuckles, bassist Honest Al, guitarist The Chet then to the roaring approval of the crowd, E. The band was dressed in matching navy blue Adidas track suits and sneakers, sporting dark sunglasses and drastically shortened beards. This is a band that had to take out insurance policies on their beards last tour because they were considered a fire hazard.E’s voice sounded strong as he attacked the lyrics, and built up to his signature howling.
The concert was heavy on new material; throughout the night they played ten out of the thirteen tracks off the album. The energy between the band members was jovial as E gave each of them a hug between songs. Guitar solos were traded off between P-Boo and The Chet as they turned to face each other on the platform at the back of the stage. Knuckles was placed at the front left of the stage which allowed the drummer to keep the tempo driving even during the slower songs.
The set remained upbeat for a solid half hour before the tempo was abruptly halted with new song “Accident Prone.” In my mind it was the only stumbling point of the entire night. Thankfully, P-Boo picked out a tasteful solo at the end of the song to pick up the pace. There were several interesting renditions of older songs throughout the set. Songs such as “Dirty Girl,” “Fresh Feeling,” and Sound of Fear” were so drastically different than their album versions, I didn’t recognize them at first.
Another thrill about seeing the Eels live is finding out what songs they’ll cover. In the past they’ve taken on Prince, Bob Dylan, Missy Elliott, and The Rolling Stones to name a few. Early on in the set Everett broke into a chest pounding interpretive dance along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” with racing guitars from the band. Later on he enthusiastically howled out the lyrics Small Faces’ “Ichycoo Park.”
Each band member gets a formal introduction, but it was interrupted by a zealous fan cheering for The Chet. E jumped on the heckling, “Where’s the dude that loves The Chet?” Chet quipped back, “Sir, please, you’re embarrassing me.” Everett turned to his guitarist and smiled. He mockingly cat called back about how much he loved The Chet. The introductions turned into a renewal of vows, as the band was celebrating Chet’s tenth year as a member. The Eels as a touring entity are constantly swapping musicians. There has been a different bass player every time I’ve seen them. With a cheesy cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings” in the background, The Chet and E announced that they would continue to be in a band together.
Throughout the night, E joked about not knowing where they were playing. He kept the gag going calling it everything from The Windy City to ‘Frisco, New Apple to The Big Easy. When he called himself out for messing up the lyrics to Dirty Girl, he laughed, and said, “We’re in New Orleans. You guys won’t remember this in the morning!” Eventually, he came clean during the first encore. Not only did he know exactly where he was, he had a shirt made up special for the night.
Some of the best moments of the night came during the encore. After a very short round of applause, the Eels returned to the stage and launched right into a bonus track off the new album. “I’m Your Brave Little Soldier” was originally recorded around the time Daisies of the Galaxy was released, but remained shelved for 13 years. They followed up with a cheeky Mash-Up, because they’re all the rage these days, of their own songs: “My Beloved Monster” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues.” The band hustled off the stage again, only to return for a second encore. Fresh Blood off of 2009’s Hombre Lobo, while a great song, is one of my least favorite live. The stage is drenched in red light while several strobes fire directly into the audience. I suggest you bring along a pair of your own sunglasses to counter this.
After the second encore, the band gathered on E’s riser for a group hug. The house lights came back on and crew members came out to break down the stage. Some fans turned to talk to each other about the show while others made their way to the exits. Just when you thought security was going to come over to you and tell you to move along, the band returned for a surprise third encore. The Eels were joined on stage by everyone’s favorite clown and monkey which lead to a staring contest between E and Puddles.
Of all the Eels concerts I’ve attended, this was definitely the most playful I’ve ever seen them. The normally stone faced Everett was laughing and joking with the band and the audience; it wasn’t part of his schtick. These guys came to rock and after a nearly two hour concert, they accomplished their mission. The next time the Eels are in town, catch their show. I can’t promise you it’ll be the same, but it will be an experience. Childhood horrors may or may not be included at no additional price.