The house lights flashed three or four times in the lobby, so the crowd would go to their seats and get silent. A few moments later the concert hall was completely dark, and everyone stared at the empty stage and listened as a jazzy classical tune played. It was “Lujon”, by Henry Mancini, a Cleveland-born composer who went to Hollywood and toiled in obscurity for a few years until he caught a break. As the introduction music grew louder and louder, the band members took the stage—most dressed formally in dark clothes. Aimee Mann walked out in a black, three-piece pinstripe suit; her straight blonde hair falling across over her shoulders. The Boston crowd roared as a favorite daughter grabbed the mic, said a few words to the band and picked up her guitar to play. But she paused before beginning her song, waiting for the final bars of Mancini’s tune to fade away, perhaps paying tribute to a fellow Easterner who had also found gold in Los Angeles.
When “Lujon” ended, Aimee smiled at the applauding crowd and broke into the chugging rhythm of “The Moth”, from her new self-released album Lost In Space. Her silky alto soared over her acoustic guitar parts, and the audience loved it. Although it’s not the most upbeat song she’s ever written, or an obvious choice as a show opener, the arrangement was perfect and Aimee’s voice was in top form. She then moved quickly into “Calling It Quits”, from her 1999 release Bachelor No. 2, followed immediately by “Choice in the Matter”, from 1995’s I’m With Stupid. The band was fantastic, with flawless three-part harmonies on “Calling It Quits”, and an excellent sound mix that was a great improvement over the technical problems that plagued some earlier shows of the tour.
Following the three opening songs, Aimee addressed the Boston crowd: “We all wanted to wear the suits, but it’s really fucking hot,” she said, while she and the bass and guitar player removed their jackets. “So, that’s it. Three songs in the suit.” And with that, the band launched into the title track from her latest record, Lost In Space, yet another beautiful, bittersweet, masterfully produced and performed album that will certainly receive far too little airplay.
After “Lost in Space”, Aimee Mann seemed to more fully absorb the crowd and setting. After all, she grew up and became famous right in front of Boston’s eyes, moving from a freshman at the Berklee College of Music (just two miles down the road from the Orpheum Theatre) to MTV—wonder in just a few short years during the early 80s.
“I played this place once before—17 years ago,” she told us to tremendous applause. “How did I get here from there?” Well, Aimee Mann’s recording history troubles have been well documented, from Epic’s hanging her last two Til Tuesday albums out to dry with no marketing budget, to substantial legal troubles with the troubled Imago label and the fickle Reprise Records. But she wasn’t dwelling on that past tonight, instead sharing with us, “The first thing I saw here was Elvis Costello solo—and it was so fucking awesome!” And with that she played “Humpty Dumpty”, the first single off her latest record, and one of those signature Aimee Mann tunes, where the melody stays in your head for a month, but only after you’ve been singing the song for a couple weeks do you realize that you’re expressing a pretty depressing sentiment. Which is exactly why we love her.
Aimee filled the set with a mix of songs from her four solo albums and the Magnolia soundtrack. The band was pitch-perfect, particularly the lead-playing of longtime band-member Michael Lockwood, and the harmony vocals of bassist Paul Bryan. And if the first half of the show was a bit stiff, with perhaps not everyone in the crowd excited by note-for-note album renditions of her songs, Aimee seemed to get in the spirit of the evening as it progressed. After playing “Save Me”, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best song, she asked the crowd, “How many of your are here with me instead of seeing the Boss?” Bruce Springsteen was in town for a bridge dedication the same night. “I’ll tell you—I was born to run!” With that the crowd was in the palm of her hand—maybe it just took a little while for Aimee to remember that Boston crowds need some extra attention, but once we get it we’re with you every step of the way.
With the crowd primed, Aimee finished the set with perhaps her most famous tune as a solo artist, “That’s Just What You Are”, followed by some of the harder-driving songs from her catalog. She closed the set with “Long Shot”, a song that finishes with many repetitions of the line “please love me more.” Not possible, I should think, as the crowd jumped into a standing ovation as soon as she said “thank you” and walked off the stage.
Of course, she and the band would soon return. After the obligatory stomping and shouting, Aimee and crew returned to the stage and started playing the aforementioned “Born To Run”. It sounded great, but after a few lines Aimee sang “I don’t know the words to the part,” and then stopped the band. Still, the crowd was overjoyed, and Aimee seemed to bask in it a little. “Boston looks cuter and cuter every time I come back,” she said. Easy enough—the applause continued. “It’s like running into an old friend, who you’re so happy looks good and has a great job.” More applause and over-enthusiastic laughter. “But I’ll tell you—the fucking traffic.” A few chuckles, and then someone yelled that L.A. traffic is worse. “L.A. is not as bad Boston is worse.” A chorus of boos and yells. “That’s right,” she explains, “I’m getting booed at my own fucking show.”
The booing was good-natured, of course, and Aimee rolled with it, offering three two-song encores in response. The first encore included “Red Vines” and “Deathly”, which Aimee explained is “the closest thing I’ve written to a love song.” She then left the stage, only to return and tell the crowd, “we’re gonna play a song we really don’t know how to play, but we’re gonna play it because of what happened 17 years ago.” It was “Voices Carry”, but a much slower, more tender version than the 1985 song with the video that everyone within a few years of thirty can picture to this day. The crowd was most appreciative, and Aimee actually seemed genuinely moved. Maybe the breadth of all she had accomplished in the 17 years between Orpheum shows had caught up with her.
She finished the second encore with “I’ve Had It”, one of her most touching songs, and then left the stage for the third time. Everyone in the audience stood and clapped, hoping to bring her back one more time. Aimee didn’t let us down. Grinning from ear-to-ear, she strode to the mic and announced “thank you for loving me.” A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but the audience was ecstatic, and it seemed Aimee was, too. Truth is, we’d been loving her for 17 years. She closed the show with “Stupid Thing” and “It’s Not”, which Aimee calls the saddest song she’s ever written. It opens with the line “I keep going round and round in the same old circuit,” which is a bad thing for the narrator of the song, but maybe not an entirely bad thing when considered in a different context.
An hour after the show I’m sitting in a small bar in Cambridge, across the river from Boston, the Orpheum Theatre, and the Berklee College of Music. A remarkably tight four-piece band is playing a ripping version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”, and my friends and I sit down to listen. Soon we started talking about Aimee’s show, and this guy at the next table overhears us and says, “I used to be in a band with Aimee Mann.” It turns out the man is Doug Vargas, guitar player and other half of the songwriting team that comprised Aimee’s first band The Young Snakes. That band only released one album, a five-song EP back in 1982, when Doug and Aimee were in their early 20s. I bet he remembers it like it was yesterday.