I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s always a good idea to see Eels live. Their reputation may not suggest it (singing a lot of bitter and sardonic ballads certainly helps contribute to a certain impression otherwise), but the band is usually guaranteed to turn in a memorable performance. Steve Perry didn’t show up Sunday night, but the crowd definitely had a great time nonetheless.
In previous years, we had seen the band perform with a string quartet, feature a documentary about E’s physicist father and answer letters from fans, and create a retro-themed variety show. This time around, the band ditched the matching track suits (and full beards) from the Wonderful, Glorious tour for more serious attire, fitting the mood of the band’s melancholic and reflective new album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett. It took a few songs before I settled on an appropriate descriptor, but an offhand comment by E realized that the suit-and-tie ensembles gave the group the look of a serious jazz quintet. The comparison fit, because while several songs were a bit slower and more introspective, the band was still able to rev it up when the tune required it.
The show began with the instrumental opener of Cautionary Tales, which segued into a delicate cover of the old classic “When You Wish Upon A Star”. The early songs were a mix of material from the new album and the Hombre Lobo/End Times/Tomorrow Morning trilogy, a batch that E remarked was full of “downers”, but were appropriately received by the audience nonetheless. E kept the mood light with quips like that, asking the audience to forgive him for not behaving like a rock star and blowing his nose in a break between songs due to a cold, and informing the crowd that Portland folks welcomed him with a nice bag of cocaine, and that it should kick in any minute. E never gets enough credit from the press for his humor and his willingness to engage the audience, but the crowd certainly appreciated it.
The pace would pick up when the band dipped into old favorites, like “Grace Kelly Blues”, “I Like Birds”, and “My Beloved Monster”. The band was in fine form, and the fact that it was the same lineup from the Wonderful, Glorious tour probably helped the cohesiveness, as they effortlessly switched instruments and altered the arrangements. It was a homecoming for three of the four backing members, as The Chet (guitars, pedal steel, melodica), Honest Al (upright bass), and Knuckles (drums/percussion, or “the yard sale back there”, as E joked) were all from the PDX area, and perhaps they were inspired by playing in front of a hometown crowd. But the quality of the band and it’s always changing dynamic helps emphasize another great point of catching Eels live, and that’s that the band is always willing to alter a song or approach it from a new angle. This was most commonly seen with their attempts to make “Novocaine for the Soul” fresh after playing it thousands of times, but on Sunday it was seen in reworkings of great songs like “Fresh Feelings” or “Last Stop: This Town”, both of which kept the spirit of the original versions but were intriguing new takes of the songs.
After a false encore, where E ran into the crowd and hugged audience members, and after a real encore break, the band ended with a beautifully sublime “3 Speed” and two excellent covers, an elegant rendition of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and a gorgeous version of Harry Nilsson’s “Turn On Your Radio”. The band then exited to a standing ovation, and the crowd was left hoping that the band would return soon, and wondering what they have next in store (even twenty years after their debut).