It’s become something of a tradition: Before heading out for an extended tour, the Eels play before a hometown crowd at the Roxy, a show that front man E compared to “a baby deer getting up on its wobbly legs.” Judging from Tuesday night’s performance, the band’s Tour of Duty is already a full-grown buck; it was a well-paced, well-played and engrossing evening of music.
Show begins with current version of the Eels vamping on the stomping blues intro of “All in a Day’s Work” (from their recently released DreamWorks album, “Shootenanny!”) until E appears at the back of the house, wailing on harmonica. He walks through the crowd, takes his place at the mike, but instead of continuing the song, he leads the band through three covers: “Tiger Man,” the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser” and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.”
Those songs — one boastful, one disconsolate, the third resigned — set the mood for the rest of the evening, a collection of character studies ranging from a lonely, hyperactive child in the propulsive “Saturday Morning” to the perplexed jilted narrator of “Restraining Order Blues.” Evening ended on an optimistic note, as E sent the aud home with a benediction to “be good to yourselves” and a heartfelt rendition of “Somebody Loves You” before returning to complete the opening “Work.”
The new, stripped-down lineup (just the basic guitar, bass and drums) brings unexpected shadings to the music, reworking the Eels’ lone hit, “Novocaine for the Soul,” into a soaring new-wave guitar ballad and turning “I Like Birds” into a punk rock catapult. GoldenBoy continues the band’s streak of fine guitarists, adding a loping jangle to “Dirty Girl” and requisite grit to “Last Stop: This Town.”
Opening for the Eels is MC Honky, whose album “I Am the Messiah” (SpinArt) — a whirlwind of beats, loops and found sounds — is a thinly veiled, if unacknowledged, side project of E’s. His short set is “performed” by a man dressed to resemble the album’s cover caricature. With his cardigan, fedora and pipe, spinning records and futzing with equipment, he looks like a dad from a ’50s television show reborn as a DJ.
The Eels’ Tour of Duty will play New York’s Irving Plaza on July 31 and return to Los Angeles for a show at the Henry Fonda Theater on Aug. 15.