As one could imagine from Aimee Mann’s catalogue of recorded music where her sweet but haunting, memorable but melancholy voice narrates narcotic and dark short story gems, her live performances will not be long on visual spectacle or rock theatrics. In fact, her subdued ease and well-worn comfort in songwriting and storytelling makes an Aimee Mann concert feel much more like an evening in someone’s living room or a cozy coffeehouse. What better venue could she have than the homey confines of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk. Blessed with an intimate warmth and unparalleled acoustics, the Old Town’s listening room was filled to capacity with Mann’s dedicated and seasoned audience, the bald, the bearded, the graying forty, fifty and sixty-somethings who revel in the work of singer-songwriters, troubadours, raconteurs, and storytellers of which Mann finds her place.
Taking center stage with her acoustic guitar Mann delivered the hushed and hypnotic, lilt and strum of her tune “The Moth” from her Lost in Space release. Mann’s voice, pitch perfect as always, skipped across the uptempo chords stamping the tune with her recognizably languorous phrasing. Longtime touring bandmates Paul Bryan on bass and Jamie Edwards on piano, keyboards, organs and synthesizers, joined Mann for the track “Freeway” from her most recent album Smilers. Edwards’ eerie, whirring organ and Bryan’s galloping bass brought an added warmth and beauty to Mann’s sarcastic and sardonic pen. Mann’s witty lyrics hit with a nod and a wink as she sang, “You got a lot of money but you can’t afford the freeway / The road to Orange County leaves an awful lot of leeway / Where everyone’s a doctor or a specialist in retail / They’ll sell you all the speed you want if you can take the blackmail.” Here lies Mann’s charm, her writer’s eye, her literary gift of imagery and metaphor. She has the uncanny ability to craft laconic rhythms and haunting melodies with a storyteller’s keen sense of observation.
Take “Little Bombs” for example, sounding something like a shimmering and luminous ballad but in tone a deadpan, introspective look at the banality of the quotidian where “life just kind of empties out, more a deluge than a drought.” The brutal imagery striking the listener with the tersest of couplets and rhythmic iambs.
Another example of Mann’s memorable storytelling in song is “Thirty-one Today” where the protagonist finds herself on her thirty-first birthday “Drinking Guinness in the afternoon, taking shelter in a black cocoon.” Seeking some type of meaning or connection in her life, Mann’s narrator calls “Some guy I knew / Had a drink or two / And we fumbled as the day grew dark / I pretended that I felt a spark.” In this tune Mann straddles a line somewhere between Bukowski’s bedraggled and besotted prose and Hank Williams’ lost and lonesome laments.
Sensing the need to inject some humor into the evening’s bleak narratives, Mann proved to be a quick-witted comedian taking endless delight in joking about folk music as she declared, “I think the definition of folk is acoustic guitars, songs about trains and no seventh chords.” When she and Edwards later produced tin-whistles and pipes, Mann revealed that “I can’t always define folk, but this must be it, a song with an instrument that can’t be played in tune.”
The humor was short-lived as Mann begged the audience’s pleasure to indulge her in an interlude of new songs she was workshopping for an ambitious attempt to turn her concept album “The Forgotten Arm” into a musical. Both album and musical focus on Carol and John who meet at the Virginia State Fair where John, a boxer, is staging fights and exhibitions of strength. Unfortunately for these lovers, John’s drug addiction and dependencies become a dark cloud coloring both their lives. I am not sure that premise makes for a happy night of musical theater but bless Ms. Mann’s heart for her bold efforts.
As such Mann treated the audience to “Easy to Die”, a song sung by Carol, haunting in its sparse beauty of a simple, plinking plaintive piano and even in possession of witty turns of phrase like “standing dumb, a crumb what a caricature.” Ultimately, the song is a depressing downer, an unending emotional drubbing. The musical score Aimee Mann is writing does not lack for honesty, passion or zeal but challenges the listener to care and feel for these battered and abused souls dabbling in an arena where hope and salvation seem far out of reach.
Rewarding the audience for its patience in enduring her ode to pain, Mann returned with crowd favorites like “Today’s the Day”; moody and mysterious with its spooky synthesizer and organ lines. Mann and band created a vibe cinematic and windswept with crescendoes of melody and harmony that paved the way for her breakthrough gem, “Save Me” from the soundtrack to the film Magnolia. Could this song be the culmination of much of the night’s previous tunes? Could all the brooding and introspective musings in song be answered by this plea for salvation, salvation as this song begs to “Save me from the ranks of the freaks who suspect that they can never love anyone.” But perhaps on grander terms, the plea to be saved is for all Mann’s flawed heroes and heroines, her bent, broken and bruised characters.
With a reserved but smiling glee Mann closed her set with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One”. How Mann on record and live makes this number sound so buoyant and bouncy is beyond belief. Lyrically there couldn’t be a more sad, lonely and blue tune. Somehow Mann finds that spark, that connection between mood and melody that begs the listener to tap and sing along.
As I set out in my opening, an Aimee Mann concert will never be memorable for bombast and showmanship but rather for the scope and sweep with which Mann delivers her songs. Her quiet charm reverberating in the night like a bedside lullaby.