This is going to be slightly different.
I was looking forward to seeing the Eels for quite a long time, I missed a couple of their gigs at the Royal Festival Hall and I was quite surprised to see they were playing Cambridge.
The Indie-(one man)-band Mark Oliver Everett (a.k.a. Mr E.) is touring an Eels greatest hits (and an Eels B-sides and rarities) album.
10 years in his career, Mr. E unfortunate life gave him enough material to write loads of songs. From some clever college-rock following Beck’s footsteps to autobiographical, intimate pearls telling his dramatic misadventures, he used it. I wouldn’t say his production is constantly excellent but the best bits are well worth the toleration of the worst.
Which is the best is subjective and related to your empathy with the man.
Son of a genius scientist involved in some of the most important quantum physics theories of this century, Mark father died in his arms when he was 19. He confessed that moment he realized to be one of the few occasions they had an intimate time together.
In the nineties drama hit the family harder, Mark Everett sister suicide and his mother death of lung cancer would be a difficult moment to go through for anyone.
Music saved Mr E.
Counting about 10 albums among Eels official and solo recordings, if I had to pick one album I would definitely go for Eels second outing: Electro-Shock blues.
It may be I am sympathetic with part of his experience but playing it while reading the lyrics it is the best example of music therapy I can think of.
Mr E. sublimated his sorrow into the songs in order to move on.
Electro-Shock blues is a striking journey into the consequence of loss, it contains one of the best song title ever written Cancer for the Cure and the title song lyrics are revealing:
“Feeling scared today
Write down “I am ok”
A hundred times the doctors say
I am ok
I am ok
I’m not ok”
Cambridge “A night with Eels” it is, in fact, a night with Mr E.
There is no band, just Mark Everett a multi-instrumentalists able to play everything from gran piano to “hammer on radiators”, supported by another multi-instrumentalist.
Listening to stripped down versions, the songs reveal the versatility of their structure and the quality of their substance.
I always loved Mark Everett voice, the gig shows his class as musician, which I undervalued until that night.
Interchangeable from guitar to piano to drums, exchanging instruments with his pal even during the same song, he enjoys the different settings always delivering remarkable versions of his tunes.
The pick of the night is definitely his early hit Novocaine for the Soul played at the drum which merged into Zeppelin’s cover of Good Times, Bad Times. Excellent.
Photographers, if Eels (the fishes) are slippery, Eels (the band) is even more!
I start my endless list of calls and e-mails to get a photo pass.
I did want to photograph the Eels and a small, all-seated theatre in the town I am living is a great occasion. Procedure is tougher than usual but at the end I am Okayed.
I arrive to the theatre in advance to discover I am the only photographer. Weird.
I hadn’t found any info about the support and I guess it could be a good one.
The program on the wall says
I ask my friend, ingenuously “Do you know the “film”, are they any good?”
He goes, “No, Valerio it is actually a real movie! There is no support, the audience is watching a BBC4 movie about Mark Everett father!”. Oh well, I give it a miss and I go for a beer.
I bump into the night duty manager and I ask for the photo policy since no one has informed me by e-mail or when I collected the pass.
The unfriendly guy, cynical smile, lists an encyclopaedia of “Don’t”:
“First three songs, from the back of the stalls, behind the mixer, without flash, don’t be in front of people, don’t disturb the technicians, don’t photograph the set-list (!?), don’t go in the aisles, don’t try to walk to the front. Ask the security guy he’ll show what you can do. If you fail any of this I’ll kick you out. No exception, take it or leave it.”
Wow, wonderful! Next time, dear PR, can you let me know in advance when band management are at war against photographers so I can relax at home, sit on my sofa and finally watch that DVD included with the Eels greatest hits, please?
Depression won’t get me; fuck the Eels and their policy. I have a reporter background, and I still keep this attitude. In 5 minutes I contemplate doing a reportage about band crew and all the unseen stuff that make live concerts possible.
Mixer, sound engineer, light engineer, audience, boxes, monitors. It is plenty of material to tell an interesting story about a concert, without actually photographing the band. Tip of the day guys, if you can’t shot the band, shot their crew!
Concert photographers rarely earn a living out of their live music activity and very few can afford a 400mm f2.8 lens that would allow to have three bland, flat pictures taken from such a distance to be published for free into some kind of music magazine. The kind of e-mails that go “Valerio, we’ll credit you and your site but we don’t have money to pay photographers”.
It is band management problem, not my problem. I quickly load the films and start shooting before the gig, when venue lights are still on. The technicians stare at me as if I am mad, the audience is curious.
Lights are off, Mr E is on.
To make things even more complicate he enters on his own, sits behind a microphone in dark shadows, wears a baseball hat. It is impossible to shot.
Fed up, I go sitting in the VIP area and enjoy the show for free. From the elevated spot I get a couple of pics to end the film, it is actually a better perspective than from the mixer.
Looking at the images I actually think this was a nice opportunity to use concert photography differently, to show that it is possible to avoid the usual clichés and tell different stories.
Live pictures will come back on liveon35mm when musicians will allow me to work.
While I was enjoying the gig, cameras in the bag, I noticed all the wannabe photographers in the audience with their mobile, digital point and shot that kept flashing towards the stage during the entire set.
I wondered if Mr E and his friend were distressed. I thought at the managers belief that professional photographers disturb the band.
Indeed we do, with our 10 minutes slot without flash, but we would disturb more if we stop photographing and live music pictures disappears from reviews, wouldn’t we?
Folks I feel generous today, another tip is to ask about photo policy in advance and in case they tell you that you are going to be locked behind the mixer, answer them politely that you’ll stay at home and no photos will be available to match the reviews.
Unless you collect photo-pass stickers, if so, Eels one is actually one of the best I got. I might sell it on e-bay to cover the expenses.