Eels, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Our first sight of Mr E, aka Mark Everett, aka Eels, is as he shuffles down the aisle, hunched over a harmonica, led towards the stage by an usher. It's somewhere between the entrance of a common punter and the heavyweight champ. The band waiting for him look like campy, red-suited Man from UNCLE henchmen, and the first song he launches into is Elvis's swaggering, smiling sexual boast "Tiger Man". As the hard, slithering rockabilly strikes up, it's not the most obvious start for a man with E's fragile frame, or reputation for depression. But when his crowd-rousing jukebox continues with an amped version of The Beatles' "I'm a Loser", the personalised nature of everything he sings sinks in. "I'm not what I appear to be," he hollers. "I've lost someone who's near to me..."

E's unrelentingly tragic life is the best-known thing about him: how his sister committed suicide and his mother died of cancer, after his father died when he was 19. The second Eels album Electro-shock Blues' unflinching examination of that misery may explain why their big early success short-circuited so quickly. Death and bad luck can seem infectious, and unpleasant in a pop star. But tonight proves that Eels deserve much more than their current cult status. E lives a world away from the cynical, professional self-pity of nu-metal and its ilk. Instead, the fact that he's alive after such hardship makes him grateful, and his natural talent for elegant pop keeps his songs uplifting. The new album Shootenanny! reinforces his secret status as one of America's premier modern soul writers.

As his entrance suggests, E is also a showman. Where he has sometimes veered towards chamber pop in the past, tonight is rooted in tough Fifties blues and sunny Sixties rock, even self-penned, post-death songs like "Packing Blankets" being remodelled for this pumped-up mood. E's greeting to the Queen, possibly attending in the shadowy Royal Box, lets a little lightness in.

But it's the quieter moments, when you can hear the heartbreak and fear that his craft disguises, which stand out starkly. Such as "Restraining Order Blues", a ballad about a man too much in love to stop. Or "Last Stop: This Town", which silences even a few rowdy drunks with its deathbed plea: "Would you take me where you're going, if you're never coming back?" "Rock Hard Times", sung as a folk song, introduces the sense of a wider disease, infecting Bush's America. But the over-riding feeling, as the crowd clap along and surge at the front, is of an E-led communal effort to feel better. "Somebody loves you", goes his last song. From his unlucky lips, it sounds like a blessing.