High up in the hills lies the Saratoga Mountain Winery, an intimate outdoor venue just a few miles southwest of San Jose It’s here that Bay Area fans of Aimee Mann must journey to catch her summer tour, no short trip from San Francisco or the East Bay. But there’s an old saying that the further you go for the medicine, the stronger it is.
It’s a decidedly older crowd on hand, but that’s to be expected for a venue nestled up above some of the South Bay’s most affluent towns. The open outdoor setting provides an intimate and beautiful ambience for summer concert fun though, with not a bad seat in the house. It’s also a co-headlining tour with Marc Cohn, who delivers a 75-minute opening set that is well received, but one can now understand the older demographic—his tunes fall into an adult contemporary genre that’s not going to draw the rock crowd.
Aimee Mann isn’t generally known as a high-intensity rocker, but what sets her melancholy, storytelling type of tunes apart is the way she blends them with her rock background. She may have mellowed a bit over the years since first breaking out with the band ‘Til Tuesday in 1982, but she’s still got that rocker’s sensibility at heart. Out in support of her new album, @#%&*! Smilers, Mann advises the crowd early on that she’ll be playing a lot of new songs. That could be a cause for groans with some artists, but not Mann. While she’s had some hits over the years, her fans are here because they appreciate her overall skills.
“Freeway”, the first single from the new album, has an up-tempo groove that gets the show going. Though she may be well into her mid-40s, Mann still sings and emotes with the passion of a much younger performer. Here, she’s on acoustic guitar with a quintet lineup that includes bass, drums, and two keyboardists instead of a lead guitarist. The sound is rich and full though, thanks to the harmonies Mann exchanges with bassist Paul Bryan (also the producer of Smilers) and some dynamic analog synth work that recalls some of The Cars’ early hits.
“The Great Beyond” starts off low-key, with the drummer using mallets, but the song’s rhythm slowly builds and some swirling blue lights combine to create a cool vibe. Mann then acknowledges the lack of lead guitar, saying she and Bryan decided to go for something different on this album and tour. It’s a sound that works well, though, thanks to keyboard parts that fill the open harmonic space.
Mann’s ever engaging sense of humor comes out when she introduces “Save Me”, a hit from 1999’s Magnolia soundtrack. She wryly notes how the song was nominated for an Oscar, only to lose to Phil Collins, “who is now retiring, so F-you Phil!” The crowd laughs and then enjoys one of Mann’s most heartfelt songs, a tune that dramatically heightened the emotional power of the film. When Mann sings, “If you could save me / From the ranks of the freaks / Who suspect they could never love anyone,” she conjures a universal resonation for anyone who’s ever drifted through a prolonged bout of loneliness. Some fine organ work drives the song for one of the evening’s early highlights.
A cover of Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” follows. It’s a mellow number that Mann compares to a short story or little piece of fiction, and is precisely the type of tune she’s made a career out of. The band strips down to a trio for the title track of her 1995 album, I’m With Stupid. Bryan switches from bass to acoustic guitar while Mann just sings over he and one keyboardist. The sparse arrangement fits right in with her recent material, with Mann adding some nice hand drum work on a brief jam at the end.
Bryan switches back to the bass for “Goodbye Caroline”, one of the best tracks from 2005’s The Forgotten Arm. Mann digs deep on the vocals and the tune resonates with a compelling emotional vibe. The song epitomizes Mann’s uncanny ability for writing tunes that are relatively stripped down but which still rock the soul.
The full band is back for “Little Tornado”, a hushed tune from the new album where Mann’s melodic lyricism stands out. She then introduces the next song as being about hitting a certain age and feeling like you should have accomplished more. The song, “31 Today”, is one of the best from Smilers. When Mann sings “I thought my life would be different somehow / I thought my life would be better by now,” it’s another universal connection. In this sense, Mann reveals her talent as a shamanic troubadour, voicing the feelings that so many leave unsaid, and thereby delivering a cathartic release for listeners upon hearing that someone else feels the same way they do. The song features a dynamic arrangement on a tight groove, with the synth taking on the vibe of an electric guitar to lift the song.
Mann offers an extended introduction to the new “Borrowing Time”, relating a humorous tale of how the song’s origins trace to her being asked to write a song for an early scene in Shrek 3. She crafted a tune with a spooky Seven Dwarves vibe, only to receive several rounds of notes saying the filmmakers liked it, but requesting changes. After various unsuccessful attempts to please the Hollywood suits, Mann and Bryan became frustrated and decided they liked the original version, which now appears on Smilers instead of the Shrek 3 soundtrack. Here the song delivers on the psychedelic Seven Dwarves vibe, with Mann and the band delivering another gem.
Due to the co-headlining format with Cohn, the set is unfortunately over after an all-too-brief 75 minutes. It’s too bad, since Mann has a wide catalogue that could easily fill a two-hour show. But since she revealed in a recent interview that she doesn’t make money touring, the co-headlining venture is understandable. While it’s a somewhat shameful commentary on the mainstream public’s musical taste or lack thereof, it’s also revealing of how Mann’s songs about the misfits and ne’er-do-wells of society occupy a unique counterculture niche. You have to have some appreciation for that niche to be a fan, but it’s also a rewarding place to visit.