Eels @ Birmingham Town Hall, 26 February 2008

Birmingham’s Town Hall, modelled on a Roman temple, first opened in 1834 and closed in 1996 for a £35 million refurbishment, only re-opening last year.  The original 6,000 pipe organ remains in place and towers over the end of the hall where the stage is located.  It takes a certain calibre of artist to belong there.

Mark Oliver Everett (‘E’) fits the description of ‘a certain calibre of artist’ and it’s not just the organ that loomed over his performance.  The various tragedies that have befallen the singer have shaped his songs and his performance is one of a man who has spent a long time rolling with some heavy punches.

Ironically, given his apparent detachment from family life when he was alive, E’s support act was his own father.  That is there was a showing of E’s recent BBC4 documentary ‘Parrallel Worlds, Parallel Lives’ on the subject of his father; the quantum physicist who developed the theory of parallel universes that has become a sci-fi staple.

E has been a prolific songwriter and, despite the recent release of a greatest hits package, the setlist drew material from all over.  ‘It’s A Motherfucker’, ‘Strawberry Blonde’ and ‘I Like Birds’ making early appearances.

The evening started gently with E alone at guitar, then piano.  As the songs built he was joined by the very able Jeffrey ‘The Chet’ Lyster who played guitar and drums, triggered loops and samples, bowed a saw and tapped out melodies on a xylophone.  E is no musical slouch and the pair showed their party trick of swapping places on the drums during ‘Flyswatter’ without missing a beat.

This lead to an aggressive ‘Nococaine For The Soul’, E shouting the words along to his heavier percussive style.  On the subject of vocals, E’s should stand as a lesson to every technically proficient but vapid X-Factor wannabe.  Although his range lies between hoarse and gruff he shows that a karaoke singer’s warbling is no substitute for feeling.

E cuts an odd figure.  Hiding behind his beard with his cap pulled low, his slight figure hunched, you’d take him for shy but the touches of broad cabaret would suggest otherwise.  Firstly there’s the mysterious, booming, paternal ‘voice from the speakers’.  Mid-set we were treated to comedy readings from fanmail and previous gig reviews.  The Chet also read from E’s autobiography; first the passage relating E’s arrival in Hollywood, then the story of an encounter with his spiritualist landlady shortly after his sister’s suicide.

‘Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor’, ‘My Beloved Monster’ and ‘Bus Stop Boxer’ provided further highlights and the night closed with two, single song encores, the first being a remarkable cover of Only Fools Rush In – E alone at the piano, digging at unintended meanings.

A note to all performers, however – commenting knowingly on the pantomime of planned encores does not excuse them.  You either play the game or you don’t.  By the time E left the stage for good the audience, previously keen to provide an ovation, were wary of being played with.  As a result E robbed himself of final acclaim and we were robbed of our chance to show our true gratitude for an excellent evening.

This review appears on Culturedeluxe.

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.

2 replies on “Eels @ Birmingham Town Hall, 26 February 2008”

  1. You are, of course, absolutely right. Although in my defence Elvis recorded songs by both names. Not much a defence is it?

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