You never know what you'll get when you attend an EELS concert. One year it's vocoders and synthesizers, the next it's gritty garage rock. None of this is designed for the sake of versatility so much as it is for answering the deep-rooted creative needs of EELS leader Mark Oliver Everett, aka E.
"I'm not going to make a polka album just because I can. It's not in me, not this year, anyway, and I'm not doing different things to try to dazzle the audience with my wide horizons. There's just some stuff in me that needs to come out," says the man The New Yorker describes as "a hypertalented misfit."
Cut to April, 2005: Everett releases the highly acclaimed EELS Blinking Lights and Other Revelations double album and assembles his most ambitious version of the EELS yet: a seven piece band consisting of Everett backed by a string quartet and two multi-instrumentalists juggling lap steel, guitar, upright bass, mandolin, musical saw, melodica, celeste, pump organ, piano, and a trash can and suitcase percussion set.
"After the last tour (2003's two-time globe-circling Tour of Duty) I was exhausted and didn't feel like touring anymore," Everett says. "Sometime after finally finishing the Blinking Lights album, I was smoking a cigar out in my backyard one night, just sitting there with my dog, Bobby, Jr., and looking up at the smoke I was puffing up into the air. I started to imagine an EELS concert that was unlike anything I'd done before, one where I could smoke a cigar during the show. Where there wasn't even a drum set, and the nucleus of the band was a string quartet. I saw lots of old, antique keyboards: a celeste, pump organ, upright piano, melodica... and a musical saw. Chet played some beautiful saw parts on some of the Blinking Lights tracks. Once I thought of the saw being on stage, I started to get excited about the idea and couldn't stop myself from making it happen."
Everett says the preparations and rehearsals were by far the most difficult in EELS history. "It was much harder than I had anticipated. We have never been in a situation where band members were reading written music. I can't even read music! This wasn't a 'pick up your guitar, plug in and see what happens' situation. There is very little margin for error with this kind of setup. There's no feedback, no cymbal wash to hide behind when something goes wrong. You're very naked and everyone can hear every little thing very clearly."
"We simply didn't have enough time to prepare and when we found ourselves at the first warm-up show, I had to level with the audience and tell them that we just weren't ready. That seemed to relax everyone and, by some miracle, we ended up having a great first night and it turned into one of the funnest tours I've ever been on, albeit a very demanding one. The sound checks were relentless. There's seven of us up there juggling about 20 instruments. Chet's sound check alone was longer than any full band's sound check should be. But he was playing enough instruments to cover two bands of lesser men."
Seven members is an EELS band member record. The ever evolving band's previous two tours were four piece lineups. Multi-instrumentalist Chet proved to be such a spotlight stealer in his role as the star multitasking sideman during the early EELS with strings shows, that he morphed into The Chet, the name he is contractually obliged to be referred to as from now on. Upright bass player Big Al, no slouch himself, also played celeste, pump organ, melodica, piano, and the autoharp -- an instrument he didn't even know he could play until E insisted he play it.
"Anyone that has ever been in the EELS can tell you that I had to push them into areas they weren't used to or didn't know they could handle: John Parish playing concert cymbals... Lisa Germano playing timpani... Now we've got The Chet playing melodica and Big Al playing piano and autoharp, even though they came to me as guitar and bass player, respectively. We don't like to use the word "impossible" around here, so I just have to push the musicians past what they perceive as their limits until they become the monsters I need."
The string quartet, first violinist Paloma, second violinist Julie, violist Heather and cellist Ana had never played together as a quartet before EELS with strings. All seven band members sang and played percussion at times during the shows.
"One of the nice things about playing a show is being able to go back to an old song and try to get it right this time, in my mind, knowing what I know now," says Everett. "It's painful to listen to an old track. I hear all the things I'd like to change. The beauty of a live performance is that you CAN change it. And some of these get changed to a pretty extreme degree. Listen to "Bus Stop Boxer" from the Souljacker album and then listen to the Town Hall version, or "Dirty Girl" from the Shootenanny! album compared to its Town Hall version. I treat the concerts like they are a musical entity unto themselves. It's never about trying to recreate the latest studio album on stage. The concerts, to me, are new albums in themselves, so it's nice to document one, especially a special one like this."
The EELS with strings tour began in May of 2005 with three warm up shows in the U.S. and then went on extensive treks of Europe, the U.S., back through Europe again, Australia, and concluded in October with a final performance at the Saint James Theater in Auckland, New Zealand. In London alone EELS with strings played concerts at Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Royal Albert Hall. The New York Town Hall performance was filmed and recorded at the end of the U.S. leg of the tour.
Recorded the evening of June 30th, 2005, after a hectic day that found the EELS loading into Town Hall at 6 a.m., having just played Boston's Sommerville Theater the night before, and then performing on The Late Show with David Letterman the very afternoon of the Town Hall show, EELS with strings Live at Town Hall is the first properly released EELS live album (two earlier limited edition live CDs were released through the EELS website and are now sought-after collectors items). Besides nineteen unique takes on songs spanning the entire EELS catalogue, Live at Town Hall also features EELS with strings taking on Bob Dylan's "Girl From The North Country," Johnny Rivers' "Poor Side Of Town," and The Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina."
The EELS with strings Live at Town Hall concert film, being released on DVD simultaneously with the CD, includes eight songs that are not included on the CD, while the CD version of Live at Town Hall includes four songs from the evening's performance that are not in the concert film.
Everett, who was born and raised in Virginia and now lives in Los Angeles likens the experience to one of the "Blinking Lights" he sings about that make life worth living: "It was a tough day, physically. We had a lot of pressure on us to do what a lot of people were telling us was either impossible, or would end in tears somehow, but we did it. We drove straight from our show in Boston the night before, loaded into Town Hall ridiculously early, did our lengthy sound check, got the cameras and recorders set up for the show, went across town and played on the David Letterman show, and got back just in time to play our concert for the people, the cameras and the tape."
"And the weird part is -- it all worked. Usually when you record a show, it's always the wrong one, it's always on a bad night. But when we were done, we all agreed that it was a great night and that we were glad we had captured it."