Photo by Bryan Lasky
Aimee Mann’s deadpan banter matches perfectly her intelligently melancholy, intensely melodic songs. When she walked onto the stage of the Hart Theatre with bandmate Paul Bryan, she said “Welcome to the Buckingham Nicks tribute band . . . Tusker Du.” She then made some unapologetic comments about the nature of what we would be hearing over the course of the evening, and assured the audience, “I won’t blame you if you fall asleep. I fell asleep at a Sade concert once.”
Although someone probably fell asleep–it’s the law of averages–figuratively speaking, no one fell asleep. Mann held the crowd’s complete attention as she showcased songs from her new album, Mental Illness, and presented a carefully curated selection of old favorites.
The old favorites: Highlights included “4th of July” from her first solo album, which opened the show and was followed by apocalyptic “White Bombs” from The Forgotten Arm. Scattered over the set were two beautifully dark songs from her haunting addiction album (Lost in Space), “The Moth” and “Humpty Dumpty”; her Oscar-nominated “Save Me”; the hard-rocking “Long Shot,” which sports the memorable opening line “you fucked up,” and which ended the show; and Harry Nilsson’s “One,” which followed as part of a three-song encore.
The band–bassist Bryan, drummer Matt Mayhall and keyboardist Jamie Edwards, with guest appearances by opener Jonathan Coulton, with and without guitar–drifted on and off stage, depending on the needs of each song. The sound was full and rich, with Edwards making imaginative use of his keys, sometimes taking a conventional role, sometimes using his instrument to evoke a string section–or just a single violin.
The songs from Mental Illness really clicked. (It’s a terrific album.) The drummer first took the stage for “Stuck in the Past,” followed by “Patient Zero,” which Mann described as a tale of Hollywood betrayal (and Andrew Garfield). Other new ones: “Rollercoasters” paints a vivid picture of a day at the fair, tempered by loss and despair. “You Never Loved Me” is the angry, almost sarcastic story of a shocking betrayal; “Goose Snow Cone” is a mysterious, cat-inspired reflection of homesickness; and the ironic “Good for Me,” which Mann played keyboards on. The latter effort was a neat trick, considering she doesn’t play piano.
In fact this resulted in a couple of false starts to the song, but it’s not like she didn’t warn us: “I’ve played this without mistakes at two of four shows.”
It’s this kind of fearlessness that also makes Mann’s often depressing subject matter bracing instead of, well, depressing.
As noted, singer-songwriter (and NPR host) Jonathan Coulton opened. Armed with only his guitar and his smart, 1980s-influenced pop-rock tunes (think Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson), Coulton thoroughly charmed the crowd. He opened with a very amusing post-breakup song built around obsessively cleaning with a Shop-Vac, followed by “Glasses,” both a lament about and ode to middle-age married life–a recurring theme, it turned out. (A song to his kids, “You Ruined Everything,” wasn’t as mean as it should have been.) His best song, “I Crush Everything,” was about the genuinely touching mid-life laments of a giant squid; his somewhat opaque new songs, from the soon-to-be-released album Solid State, were about computers and machines in a dystopian future. His final number, “A Talk With George,” was a witty–and at times snarky–celebration of the late author, editor and raconteur George Plimpton.
If you don’t know who Plimpton was, you’re probably not Coulton’s target demo.
Aimee Mann, The Egg, Albany, April 25