The atmosphere of the Birchmere, where audiences are seated, served, and urged by table placards to shut their yaps, is ideal for an Aimee Mann show. The crowds are mature—usually adults in their thirties—and polite. Nobody’s knocking elbows to get to the bar, which leaves listeners relaxed and able to focus on Mann’s precise voice as it breaks their hearts verse by devastating verse.
23 May 2005: The Birchmere Alexandria, VA
Mann’s shows are emotionally exhausting, on this tour more so than ever. The last time I saw her was in the spring of 2001, when she toured with her husband, Michael Penn, and comedian David Cross, who performed between each of Mann’s and Penn’s three-song sets. (It wasn’t funny.) I was pleased to enjoy a full concert of Mann’s songs this time, minus the frequent interruptions.
After a whimsical acoustic set by Australian singer/songwriter Ben Lee, Mann marched on stage with her four-man band and kicked things off with “Dear John”, aexhilarating song that introduced Caroline, a drifter, and John, a substance-abusing boxer, whose up-and-down relationship is the meat of Mann’s new album, The Forgotten Arm. ear John” started off a little queasy. The band had to stop midway to get the sound mix fixed so Mann’s voice wasn’t swallowed. Fortunately, “Dear John” was worth hearing twice.
The set list was heavily prejudiced toward The Forgotten Arm—a good thing, because some of her older stuff paled when shoved next to the new album’s compelling vignettes. For instance, “Amateur”, a plodding kiss-off from 1995’s I’m With Stupid, couldn’t hold up against the moving poetry of “Little Bombs”, which features a rich, almost alt-country vibe and perhaps the strongest lyrics of Mann’s career.
Whereas her previous albums have been full of self-absorbed bittertudes, all beautifully written and pulled forward by Jon Brion’s stately production, the heartwrenching songs of The Forgotten Arm show Mann taking up the mantle of folk-rock storyteller. It is a role she pulls off with aplomb.
Because the subtly produced album sounds so close to a live recording, however, hearing its songs performed live didn’t much improve on the experience of listening to the record. Aside from guitarist Julian Coryell’s extended jams on “She Really Wants You”, the only notable variation was Mann’s voice, which achieved a richness evaded on record, where it tends to run a bit nasal-thin at times.
Thankfully, her voice was still every bit as clear, and her excitement over the new material was evident. Playing these songs seemed almost like therapy for Mann—she was unusually giddy and talkative between songs. Generally known for being somewhat awkward on stage, Mann this time kept up a running commentary that included an anecdote about Elvis Costello, a dis on Donald Trump, and some fun poked at her bandmates. Maybe the incessant tugs at our hearts left us with a lust for laughter; she had us in stitches several times.
Between-song banter or no, few punches were pulled. Check out the set’s dizzying centerpiece quartet: “Save Me” and “Wise Up”, both from the Magnolia soundtrack and both providing major blows to the head, followed by the one-two punch of “Video” and “Little Bombs”. Forgive the continued boxing conceit, but: total knockout.
These four songs, each so powerful in its own right, sounded seamless when played in succession, and that coherence makes an argument for the thematic bonds of Mann’s entire oeuvre. She is at her best when giving voice to characters at their lowest, characters who are paralyzed as they watch themselves fall apart. But within that paralysis, Mann always inserts some small nugget of hope. From the melodica-enhanced chorus of “Save Me” (“save me/ from the ranks of the freaks/ who suspect they could never love anyone”) and the gentle “Wise Up”, which showcased her upper register, to “Video”‘s disoriented resignation and the rock-bottom devastation of “Little Bombs” (“Life just kind of empties out/ Less a deluge than a drought”)—these twenty minutes were an emotional time bomb. Words were clung to, tears sprung, hearts wrung dry, and so forth.
Mann let up a little after that, trading rhythm guitar for bass to dig into “Amateur” and “Driving Sideways”. The band rocked out on “Sugarcoated” and “I Can’t Help You Anymore” before being called back for two encores of two songs apiece. They ended with “Deathly” and Coryell’s rousing guitar solo.
Despite a brief lull or two, the concert was stunning. Inarguably, the best moments involved the newer material. I showed up less familiar with The Forgotten Arm than with Mann’s previous albums, but these new songs played out like classics. As marked by her earlier album-to-album shuffles forward, Mann has taken small steps as she has become more firmly cognizant of her strengths. This confident step out of orchestral pop into folk-rock territory was unexpected, and a substantial move forward. If she is only just now finding her stride, it will be exciting to see where she goes with it.
Had I not been on the guest list, however, I would not have attended this show. Forty-five bucks a ticket? You must be joking.