Eels, Dome, Brighton

4.00

Laughter in the face of tragedy

Many musicians claim to have been saved by rock'n'roll but Mark Oliver Everett – singer, songwriter and driving force behind the US band Eels – wouldn't be alive without it. The death of his father from a heart attack when Everett was 19 was the first in a series of tragedies that, one by one, claimed the lives of his whole family.

Compounding the depression that already afflicted the musician, his sister committed suicide in 1996 and two years later his mother died of cancer. But rather than allow his grief to overwhelm him, Everett channelled his experiences into a series of darkly humourous and often beautiful albums.

Now, more than a decade into his career, he has added film-maker and writer to his repertoire. Excerpts from his newly published memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know, detailing his extraordinary family history and his burgeoning success with Eels, are read out at tonight's performance, while last year's BBC documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, which saw Everett getting to know his late father, a quantum physics genius who developed the theory of parallel universes but never got the recognition he deserved, opens the show.

Following Everett's visits to Princeton where his father developed the theory, and the Pentagon where he later worked, it's a fitting and frequently funny introduction to a musician who, despite his considerable success, has always been on the outside looking in.

After the film comes the music, with Everett taking the stage in a trucker's cap and boiler suit. The set spans the Eels' career, from top 10 hit "Novocaine for the Soul" from their debut album Beautiful Freak, to tracks from their latest opus Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Despite the songs' dark subject matter, the music is never depressing. Indeed, it's Everett's matter-of-factness in singing "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor", an epitaph to his sister, or his paean to isolation "It's a Motherfucker" that makes it so moving.

Previous tours have seen Everett performing with a full band and string section but tonight's show is a pared-down affair in which, following a handful of acoustic numbers, he is accompanied on drums, guitars, harmonium and musical saw by a multi-instrumentalist, introduced simply as "the Chet". The pair enjoy the kind of synergetic relationship that, during "Flyswatter", allows them to swap instruments – one on drums, the other on piano – without missing a beat. It's a neat party trick that is about entertainment rather than ego.

Another of Chet's duties is reading book excerpts, one of which details Everett's surreal encounter with the actress Angie Dickinson during his first sojourn in Los Angeles. She was presenting a band with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the time, and Everett decided to introduce himself. He gave her a demo tape and waited for her call, but it never came.

If Chet is the straight man in this double act, then Everett is the clown. Belying the troubled history that fuels his art, he's an upbeat and charismatic presence with a nice line in self-parody. Sending up the narcissism and vanity of the rock star, Everett invites hecklers to "let it all out" and wonders what he can do to make himself feel good. He decides to read out some fan mail.

There's a couple of fawning letters from female admirers, but then comes one from a man in Perth. "You suck," it says. "Have a nice day." Book-ending the set is a booming Tom Baker-ish voice from the speakers, which announces "Mark Oscar [sic] Everett, this is your life." And what a hell of a life it's been.

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