I admit it--I rang Largo just in case the "very special guest" slot turned out to be Neil Finn, but once I got the callback for Aimee Mann's show, I couldn't resist. At the least, I could strike another signature Largo event from my scorecard. At best--and this is a hell of an upshot--I'd get to see one of my favorite songwriters extremely up close and personal.
Aimee Mann, Largo, April 19, 2006: Besides Jon Brion, Aimee is perhaps the performer most closely associated with Largo, but I've never seen her there, not in the heyday of the Mann/Brion perfect-pop machine, nor even hanging around the kitchen. The closest I came was the Acoustic Vaudeville tour that she and Michael Penn took on the road, inspired by their nights at Largo. That's still one of my favorite shows of all time, helped along in no small part by Patton Oswalt's hilarious banter.
Patton wasn't around tonight, and frankly, I wasn't sure Aimee would deliver in such close quarters. I've seen lackluster shows from her in the past, but following Flanagan's intro, Aimee set the tone. She's always claimed onstage banter isn't her strong point, but she seemed to be in a chatty, relaxed mood from the outset, when, immediately after taking the stage, she announced, "I am completely full of Largo food," vindicating all of us who've faced the $15 challenge. I was pretty much smitten at that point, Zagat rating notwithstanding, and over the course of the night, she would make fun of her bandmates, her "guest list friends," and herself.
Aimee started out by herself on acoustic guitar with a new song that she warned us was not yet fully written; I have to agree with her, though she had a cool refrain on her hands. From there, her bass player and pianist joined her, and they would duck in and out as needed for the rest of the evening.
I can't complain about her song selection--to my surprise, she didn't lean on her last two albums, as you might expect from a typical promotional show. Instead, she dipped again and again into the back catalog. I was delighted with the different treatment for "Lost in Space;" instead of the distinctive organ intro, the song began with the piano and bass before the guitar came in. But the next song was the showstopper of the night: "It's Not Safe," solo acoustic guitar, with more than a passing node to Joni Mitchell and far removed from the frothy pop you'll find on I'm With Stupid.
Aimee sat down at the piano for the next tune, with the disclaimer that she couldn't really play the instrument but wanted to prove that she, too, could write a song on it, just like Fiona Apple. She was right--she's not very good at piano, but she gave us a simple upbeat structure adorned with sassy lyrics, something along the lines of a lover calling her a bitch when she left him. When she requested help from her bandmate Jaime, he pulled up a chair to the other of the piano and sprinkled in a gorgeous, sparkling riff.
Watching them together, I finally understood what Aimee does best. She has an undeniable gift for killer hooks, natural melodies, and indelible characters, and she incorporates them in what are, at the core, basic, straightforward songs that other musicians--be it Jon Brion, Elvis Costello, Bernard Butler, or any number of major talents--can't help but contribute to and build upon. Most of us don't get to see that exchange between artists, but at Largo, I was again allowed to watch this process take place right in front of my eyes.
Though her onstage manner was far from improvisational, Aimee had her own ideas for her catalog. For instance, she paid tribute to Jon Brion's jury-rigged percussion on "Frankenstein" with her own arsenal of unusual instruments and a corral of comedian/writer friends. I'd even go so far as saying she flew without a safety net on her new songs, especially the Fiona Apple-inspired number, and as is often the case, she reserved the encore for audience requests (subject to her veto).
I always temper my expectations for performers at Largo who aren't Jon Brion, but it was impossible to not think of him during the show, especially since Aimee's setlist favored the albums with which he's most closely associated. Truthfully, I didn't expect to hear the "Born to Run" glockenspiel on "I've Had It," and Paul and Jaime's background vocals were nothing to complain about, but a girl can fantasize about the two of them eventually working together again.
Paul Bryan opened, and he should be familiar to anyone who's seen Aimee on tour for her last couple of albums. He plays bass in her band, and quite honestly, he's adorable. As it turns out, he's a singer/songwriter too, and he even did a song he wrote for Bettye LaVette but that didn't make the cut. He has a fine voice, but on the whole, his music wasn't too distinctive.
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