Friday, May 5, 2017


MAY 2, 2017

Aimee Mann: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar
Jay Bellerose: Drums, Percussion
Paul Bryan: Bass Guitar, Vocals
Jamie Edwards: Piano, Keyboards, Synths, Vocals
Jonathan Coulter: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Piano

I first experienced the music of Aimee Mann live in concert fifteen years ago, as she was touring in support of her gorgeously devastating album "Lost In Space" (released August 27, 2002). 

While having been a longtime fan of Mann's even at that point in my life, yet not having the chance to see a concert by her, I remember feeling more than unsure as to what kind of a show I would be witness to. There was no question about the songs themselves in regards to quality, especially after riding the wave of critical and commercial success with her stunning music from Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (1999) and her equally brilliant opening shot as an independent artist, "Bachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains Of The Dodo" (released May 2, 2000), her third solo album.

The curious question I had to myself was housed in the fact that Aimee Mann is not known for composing music that could be perceived as being "fun" and definitely not "frivolous," with many selections adhering to a somber, mid tempo to slow pace. Would the night be, oh...a depressing one, so to speak?

Additionally, while Mann's songs are undeniably warm, they are equally more than acerbic, eliciting an aching bittersweetness that has long since become her trademark. That being said, I had rarely seen an interview with her at that time so I had nothing to gauge her actual personality on. Certainly, through her music, she possessed a tremendous amount of empathy. But she also seemed to be somewhat icy and unknowable, making me question if she was mining variations of her own mental state and emotional territories for her music. Frankly, did she even posses a sense of humor? Remember, she had not yet established her reputation for droll comedy. "Funny Or Die" and "Portlandia" did not yet exist. And with "Lost In Space" proving itself to be her darkest material to date at that time, I was unsure as to how she would perform her show.

To my surprise, the "Lost In Space" show was filled end-to-end with strong rock and roll energy as Mann and her crack band perform brought out the power in her specialized brand of power pop yet without sacrificing any of the nuances and delicate textures that make her songs so idiosyncratic and identifiable. And as an added bonus, what surprised me most was Aimee Mann's in-between song banter, which was often extremely funny and filled with a self-deprecation that ran in contrast with the melancholic qualities of her own music. She smiled and laughed easily, as if she were tickled with herself  and the qualities of her chosen craft and her genuine, unpretentious nature warmed the entire night, which built upwards throughout the audience as we sang along if we were in some sort of a musical group therapy.

It was a wonderful night (one that was richly shared alongside an equally wonderful friend), so much so that I knew that if I had the opportunity to see Aimee Mann again, I would not waste the chance. we are. 15 years later, with seven more albums under her belt and her existence as an independent artist having paid off handsomely, Aimee Mann returned to my city and the Barrymore Theater, more specifically, and over the course of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, Mann and her core band performed an eloquent, elegant concert that beautifully showcased the shimmering textures of her latest album "Mental Illness" (released March 31, 2017) and more.

Unlike the recent, and astonishing, performance I had previously witness from The Flaming Lips, which contained all manner of outstanding special effects, Aimee Mann achieved something of equal standing (and I think some would argue, to an even higher standing). Mann illustrated that in this bombastic age of 21st century musical excess, from singing and performing to theatrical effects, the greatest special effect one could have, so to speak, is the material itself. In the case of Aimee Mann, her vast catalog of musical riches, combined with the plaintive qualities of her voice are special effects no one but her could engineer as distinctly and often, as powerfully.
The evening began with Jonathan Coulton, performing in support of what I have discovered is his ninth solo album entitled "Solid State" (released April 28, 2017), a work Coulton wryly described as being a sci-fi concept album about technology and complete with a full graphic novel--"This isn't 1974! Who wants a concept album about robots?" he quipped.

Appearing as if he exited either his high school English class or collegiate T.A. session group and headed straight to the stage, Jonathan Couton's witty, melancholic songs of 21st century middle age angst carried a lyrical astuteness and vocal tenor that often recalled someone like Ben Folds, or even Mann's former co-conspirator Jon Brion, while his expert acoustic guitar work often reminded me of Pete Townshend,
Coulton was a terrific opening act, a performer who could not have been more tailor made to support Aimee Mann, even if he was not upon Mann's record label and also even if she had not sung backing vocals upon his album. But he is and she did and the twosome made for a splendid pairing as Aimee Mann herself popped on-stage during Coulton's set to join him on two selections as well as some often laugh out loud stage banter, which displayed their clear affection, rapport and respect towards each other, all of which carried over into the fullness of the Barrymore.
By the time Aimee Mann began her headlining portion of the show, she strode on-stage confidently, with her right hand man, bassist/vocalist/producer Paul Bryan in tow, as they opened with the stark "4th Of July" from her debut solo album "Whatever" (released May 11, 1993), a song I have loved for so long that hearing it on this night made it feel like a reunion with an old friend. Shortly thereafter, the duo of Mann and Bryan were joined by keyboardist/vocalist Jamie Edwards, drummer/percussionist Jay Bellerose.  

Jonathan Coulton returned to the stage and repaid the favor given to him earlier in the evening by performing with the band on the tracks from "Mental Illness" which he co-wrote with Mann, including the mournful "Good For Me," and the heartaching "You Never Loved Me," songs that sparkled with glistening and pristine three part vocal harmonies from Countol, Bryan and Mann. .

What struck me about this night, as Aimee Mann and her first rate band traveled confidently through her vast catalog, including a suite of songs from her treasured "Magnolia" period, was that the evening was not one of emotional catharsis for me, much as it had been for the first time that I had seen her and even in comparison to the recent shows that I have witnessed from the aforementioned performance by The Flaming Lips as well as with Fishbone. Yes, I urge you to not take that statement as existing and any form of criticism, for the show was a perfect one from start to finish. There was nothing that I could have asked for that was not already delivered beautifully by Aimee Mann and her band.

Certainly Aimee Mann's music, as presented on this night as well as within the entirety of "Mental Illness," was not designed to be overtly dramatic, so to speak. It was an evening of subtlety and nuance, her music functioning almost as chamber pop. All of the music arrangements were more than notable in their sparseness--quite the feat if you have listened to the studio wonders created on her albums from the beginning--a feature that was also reflected within the stage set-up, which possessed nothing but the most essential tools: the musicians, their instruments and the stage lighting. Intimacy was paramount and the overall effect was filled with grace and generosity.
Additionally, the inclusiveness of the night was unquestionably found within (again) Aimee Mann's wonderful sense of humor, which she displayed over and again. Her story and intro to "You Never Loved Me," for instance, was priceless in its honesty laced with a cheerful vulgarity.

Most notably, when Jonathan Coulter returned to the stage, he and Mann simply chatted a bit back and forth, making each other laugh with inside jokes and wry asides, all of which translated extremely well. Mann, after flubbing her own opening lyrics to "Stuck In The Past," led to an impromptu joke at the expense of a certain celebrity figure who now happens to be President of the United States, found the Barrymore audience erupting in laughter. Everyone on stage looked to perfectly relaxed and comfortable, with each other as well as the material, which was exquisitely performed, never maudlin at any moment, nor cynical, embittered and definitely not humorless.

Aimee Mann's performance for me was not about being a night of epiphanies and frankly, it never needed to be. For me, it was most reminiscent of the performance I saw by World Party back in 2015, also one where the studio wizardry of the band's discography was stripped down to its most naked elements. For Aimee Mann, the only spectacle of the evening were the songs themselves, brightly shining stars that have endured for the duration of her career and have no fear of dimming anytime soon.

And in turn, the bright shining stars that are the songs reflected their brilliance directly back to their creator, a singer/songwriter of immeasurable talents and one for whom we should never take for granted as their are so very few in her league operating at her level. And still, she makes it all look so easy (!) as her demeanor throughout the night was practically breezy, despite the darkness and anguish contained within her music and the seriousness and purity of her delivery.

Aimee Mann is an artist of which there is no artifice or self-important and ironic detachment. She was fully engaged, so present and giving, as if she had welcomed us into her home for a night of stories and songs.

But, on the contrary, we welcomed her into ours, and believe me, we will be thrilled to have her return whenever she possesses the wish.
All photos by Scott Collins

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