The adage that you’ve gotta laugh to keep from crying has informed the music of Eels’ mastermind Mark Oliver Everett — aka E — since the beginning of his career. Alternating between harrowing songs about the deaths of family members and innocent musings about nature’s glories, as he did at this perf, Everett showed an uncanny ability to keep his audience off-balance but fully engaged.
Rather than use a standard opening act, Everett opted to kick off the evening with a screening of the BBC special “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” which focused on the singer’s tumultuous relationship with his deceased father, a brilliant physicist whose aloof demeanor had a profound impact on his offspring.
While not exactly conducive to setting a party mood, the documentary did set the proper tone for the torrent of confessions and digressions that would follow. In contrast to the Eels’ last Gotham visit, on which Everett was surrounded by a seeming cast of thousands, this perf found him accompanied by a single sideman, the multi-instrumentalist Chet Lyster.
The two men traded places frequently throughout the set, swapping keyboard, guitar and percussion duties — conjuring up bursts of distortion on “Dog’s Life” and “Flyswatter” and waxing mournfully bluesy on “Souljacker Part One” and the spectral “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor.” At times, the minimalism verged on the contrarian — Everett shed samples from songs that needed a bit more meat on their bones — but more often, it created a hushed mood befitting the singer’s subject matter.
Evincing a skewed sense of showmanship, Everett devoted a few moments to readings from his autobiography — although he designated spoken-word duty to his bandmate, rather than deliver them himself. He did, however, take full control of the spotlight when the chips were down.