So a 6’5” clown, a cape-wearing vocalist from Neptune, and the son of the quantum physicist who developed the theory of parallel universes walk into a packed D.C. night club. The clown’s broken-hearted torch songs cause every jaw in the place to fall on the floor, the vocalist performs a delightful solo set that picks up the jaws and glues them back in place with a smile, and the physicist’s son renews his music vows to his lead guitarist with the bass player officiating the ceremony. That’s not a comedic setup -- that’s what actually went down at the 9:30 Club on Sunday -- but if it were a joke no one in attendance would forget the punch line for quite some time.
Without fanfare (or warning), Puddles the Clown wandered through the darkened upper bar area of the 9:30 before descending the stairs, pushing through the crowd, and clambering over the photo barricade onto the stage. He then stood in silence, staring at the microphone for a baffling amount of time, until the crowd grew eerily silent as well. When he finally opened his mouth, a voice that could have been stolen from one of the 3 Tenors delivered a remarkable set of 1950’s love-gone-terribly-wrong songs, before covering Celine Dion’s horrifying “My Heart Will Go On” with lyrics spliced in from “Enter Sandman.” Looking like a cross between Zippy the Pinhead and Jello Biafra, when Puddles extended his preternaturally long arms in the now iconic Prow of the Titanic pose, none of us were thinking “I’m king of the world” so much as “I’m probably going to wet the bed tonight.”
It’s no use describing Puddle’s monkey girl companion who appeared in the corner, nor is it even worth it to describe what she was doing to a banana, but suffice it to say that following the Pity Party would have proven quite difficult for most artists. Fortunately Neptune City, New Jersery’s Nicole Atkins pulled it off with an earnest set of honky tonk-soaked ditties and ample use of her whammy bar. Her vocal fan club up front sang along to everything and yelled out requests for favorites like “Monterey Honey,” while Atkins told charming stories about her recent life events, including finding a guitar pick emblazoned with the phrase “10,000 Leagues Under My Nutsack” embedded in a palm tree in L.A.
Next up, the five members of Eels marched on stage in matching Adidas jumpsuits and sneakers, and if they weren't the coolest band on the planet for the two hours that followed they gave whomever holds that moniker a solid run for their money. With matching beards and sunglasses completing the effect, Eels proceeded to absolutely blow the stage apart for 25 solid minutes with “Bombs Away” and two other selections from the recently released Wonderful, Glorious album, building up to a ramshackle rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” and the scorching “Tremendous Dynamite.” Eels finally gave the audience an ounce of breathing room with the leisure suit appropriate “That Look You Give That Guy” and a deconstructed “Dirty Girl,” with the backing harmonies for Girl illustrating the true beauty and loss conveyed in the lyrics of what in the studio was a rocking rocking pop song.
Formed by front-man Mark Oliver Everett (or more simply “E”) in the mid-90’s, the band’s evolving cast of personnel and stage shows have been largely dependent on E’s mood from year to year, but for the past few rounds he’s settled on one set of musicians to call his own and the live shows are truly amazing. Anyone who’s seen Eels in the past eight years should know better than to expect “Novacaine for the Soul” -- it only comes out on rare occasions when E is in just the right mood -- but that didn't stop everyone from totally losing their shit when he announced they were turning on the Way-Back machine to the suckiest of decades, the 1990's. Instead of Novacaine, though, they played a gorgeous version of “Flower”—a far superior song off Beautiful Freak—that made more sense given the sad clown opener.
After declaring that we’d all survived that brush with 1996, E led the band back into Wall of Guitar and Adidas Sweat Suit territory with the brand new “Peach Blossom,” unfortunately steering clear of anything off Electro-Shock Blues for the night. Given the history and background of that album, (if you’re bored after reading this, look it up) it may be that E’s ebullient mental state depends on it staying sequestered from time to time. “Fresh Feeling” was made over with an almost Doobie Brothers vibe, and “Sound of Fear” was ridiculously tight and excellently performed.
E spent much of the evening inviting various band members to join him on the Lead Singer Riser for a hug, before announcing that he and lead guitarist “The Chet” had been together for 10 years. After renewing their vows and, you guessed it, a lot more hugging, the rest of the main set sailed along in a similar vein of rock-ass good timing and some pretty incredible guitar work, before the band took a quick breather to get ready for three encores. Yup, three.
The first encore included “Brave Little Soldier” and a clever squashing of “Monster” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues,” which mocked the fact that both songs sound alike; the second encore was “Fresh Blood” and enough strobe lights and feedback to cause seizures in every living thing on the U Street Corridor. House lights went up, the stage crew started breaking down the set, and half the club emptied for the Metro when the band sauntered back out on stage and picked up guitars. Unlike 2008’s Eels with Strings performance, the band did not come back out wearing pajamas, but they did bring Puddles back out and closed with a deafening “Go Eels!” and a lot of shouting and stomping from the remaining audience.
Sunday’s performance, with its delivery of excellence in musicianship, E’s mastery of how to work a crowdsmanship, and the secret-handshake nature of the third encore, again highlighted one of the best parts of any Eels show -- when you’re in the audience, you can’t help but feel like you’ve just been included in an ongoing inside joke with the coolest kids you know. And that’s a feeling that sticks with you for a while.