When Aimee Mann took the stage last Friday night at the Wiltern, it was with little fanfare and a lot of talking. Before she even played a note, she had offered the audience an unusual proposition: she would play “eight or nine” songs to start out the evening, and then turn over the reigns to the crowd, taking requests from them until she decided to call it a night. There was nothing at the time to indicate that “calling it a night” was going to be an event two hours and 15 minutes in the making.
What was ostensibly Mann’s last show of her then-current tour actually wound up being much more like a master class on songcraft and showmanship. As Mann was touring without the benefit of a full band, the evening’s focus was placed squarely on her voice and songs, rather than the dynamics and bombast which typically overcompensate for the same-ness that permeates the work of most singer-songwriters.
Truth be told, if Mann has any weakness, it is that very one – much of her oeuvre sounds interchangeable at first listen, particularly a lot of the work that followed in the wake of her essential Bachelor No. 2 / Magnolia soundtrack releases from the late 90s. Married to the right song, her voice delivers like guru’s advice, laden with truths that cut to the heart of matters. On the other hand, guided incorrectly, less savvy fare like Lost In Space‘s “Guys Like Me” comes to the fore. While many of Mann’s 90s female contemporaries made their mark bristling with anger and invectives, her trademark delivery has always been something far more sincere, albeit lazier in tone. And though there’s nothing inherently fallible about that quality, it does make it harder to hurdle songs that lack the strength of her best writing, particularly those on more recent releases.
Still, if Mann is anything, she’s consistent. Her output has regularly been composed of lyrically keen songs that smack of Beatles-esque melodic sensibilities. Compiling a “best of” from her catalogue would be a daunting task, and not just because of its quantity (six albums and the majority of a soundtrack, not counting ‘Til Tuesday releases). And on this night, with the audience working for her, there was an assurance that the set would be populated by the cream of Mann’s crop. After plowing through some deeper cuts from her various releases (such as the Lost In Space b-side “Nightmare Girl”) before engaging the audience’s whims, it was a foregone conclusion that the vox populi would call for more popular entries from her canon to balance out the show.
Though Mann made it clear early on she would entertain all suggestions, she also set parameters to the effect that she would limit any ‘Til Tuesday fare to two songs maximum and that she would allow herself two opt-outs for songs she didn’t feel like playing. Not like those guidelines limited the imagination of the audience – by the time she wound down the planned portion of her set, the stage was littered with requests. In a sense, it was after those requests were gathered into a hat for Mann’s random selection that the real show began.
Audience requests varied from Lost In Space’s “Invisible Ink” to Whatever’s “4th Of July” and Everything’s Different Now’s “The Other End (of theTelescope),” though to be fair, the requests as a whole were still anchored by the songs from Bachelor No. 2 and the Magnolia soundtrack which hadn’t been covered in the first half of the set, including “Just Like Anyone” and “Ghost World” (written as “Gost World,” on the request sheet, much to Mann’s delight). In fact, by the time the show ended, she had played almost all of the songs from those two releases, (though “Red Vines” and “Deathly” were two of the more notable exclusions).
This isn’t to say things were predictable – Mann was tickled by the appearance of The Forgotten Arm’s “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart” from the request hat, stating that it hadn’t been played once on the entire tour. And though she warned against anyone requesting songs that weren’t hers, like say – “Freebird” – more than one request along the lines of “Memories” from the musical Cats made it out of the hat before being comically discarded.
As an alumnus of L.A.’s vaudeville-like singer-songwriter haven, Largo, Mann was well-equipped to keep the audience entertained with lots of joking and banter between songs. And while she foretold various “trainwrecks” were in store for the night, particularly on the aforementioned “Invisible Ink” — which she apologized for beforehand — nary a stale note was to be found over the course of the show. Throughout, Mann and her band (a trio which expertly fleshed out her compositions with keyboards, lap steel and rhythm guitar) kept things interesting by varying the instrumentation on songs; Mann herself went so far as to occasionally play bass and recorder as well as accompany numbers with her right foot manipulating the high-hat cymbals from a drum kit. Again, none of these changes were “wacky” as much as they were fresh and complimentary to her voice and songs.
At around two hours into the show, having barely made a dent in the stack of paper that was nesting in the request hat, Mann turned over the final selections of the set to her band, who came up with “Freeway” from 2008’s @#%&*!Smilers, before they quickly overshadowed it with “Driving Sideways.”
After just a few moments, Mann and company returned to the stage and goofed through part of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” as a make-good on a joke/reference to a request from an earlier tour stop. Then, even after two hours, things seemed to come to an all-too-quick ending as Mann broke out ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” and the Harry Nilsson-penned “One” as the final numbers of her performance.
At a point when most acts would be done with their post-show deli trays, meet ‘n’ greets and be halfway into the hookers and blow, Mann and her band were still giving their all to the Wiltern audience. Regardless of her success or lack thereof as a chart-topper, there’s little wonder why Aimee Mann has persevered through her origins as an 80s pop idol, various major label woes and the insecurity that comes with becoming an independent artist. Having paid those dues, Mann certainly has earned her status as a headliner – which is a good thing, because she’s one tough act to follow.