Unpacking Eels’ and E’s performance at DC’s Lincoln Theater

E of Eels. (Image courtesy Eels.)
E of Eels. (Image courtesy Eels.)

WASHINGTON, July 9, 2014 – Eels are very strange band to unpack and it’s necessary to take a number of ideas into account when seeing them live. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the audience enjoyed their recent show at the Lincoln Theater, but it does put the performance in an interesting context.

The main notion is this: Eels doesn’t really adhere to any official history or preconceived notions an audience might have concerning the band, aside from the fact they expect an entertaining and unique show worthy of the way front man Mark Oliver Everett—commonly known as E—puts himself forward.

For those who remember Eels from the ‘90s, the band might be classified as a one-hit wonder. Perhaps that’s because it’s hard to imagine precisely what E was aiming for when Eels recorded Beautiful Freak, which included the single “Novocain for the Sale.” It’s the only Eels single to ever really chart in the US and it was issued during a post-grunge timeslice when modern rock radio was briefly in line with E’s quirky pop sensibilities.

Another important point of note is that Eels is essentially a solo project at this point, although it’s doubtful E would actually envision it this way. Yet since the band’s early days, it’s experienced considerable turnover with E as the always-present constant.

For that reason, those interested in collecting their entire discography are generally starting to include anything and everything E himself has recorded. After all, he’s the main focal point and the only member of the band who addresses the audience when the band performs. Oddly, though, he doesn’t really identify himself or the band on stage, apparently assuming that everyone knows they’re watching Eels.

This casual assumption overtly bled into Eels’ show at the Lincoln Theater, enabling E to create a calm and comfortable atmosphere while the band performed. Any number of bands – and contemporaries of Eels – feel compelled to get the crowd involved as if they’re playing a standing room-only venue, which can come off as forced and at times obnoxious. Eels doesn’t bother with this kind of overt hype, instead let their audience dictate their own level of enjoyment of this band’s set.

An Eels show is a stage show but without any linear narrative or specific set design. But as E moves through the set list, a continuous flow is set in motion, allowing each song to segue into the next almost seamlessly. It’s the way E has always performed, and that includes his commentaries.

E’s onstage ramblings aren’t all that organized or meticulously structured, but they share the similar stream-of-consciousness design he employs in his lyrics and music. He’s much less directly self-deprecating during his songs, but the emotional content is still all there as he lays himself open before the audience.

His songs aren’t actually straight confessionals or true-to-life metaphors. But the emotions he expresses are certainly real and they’re embodied in the way he performs.

The way Eels’ (and E’s) style has evolved over two decades has transformed itself into piano-driven rock, with some of the trappings of ‘90s alt rock remaining in the mix. Strong hints of modern alt country get tossed in for good measure. This presence gives Eels a more emotional resonance with the contemporary audience and makes everything E plays and sings to the audience seem much more personal, which it likely is.

That’s the impression Eels left everyone present at the Lincoln Theater with; namely that they’ve just had a personal encounter with E and the rest of the band. It’s consistent with the way he’s always been able to connect with the audience. And that’s the reason why, while Eels may not have completely started out solely as E’s personal project, over time it’s evolved that way as his personality has become clearly imprinted on the band’s musical signature.

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