Aimee Mann's Distant Start at the Birchmere

Monday, July 3, 2006

Aimee Mann introduced "Nothing Is Good Enough" at the Birchmere on Saturday night as her failed attempt at a light, catchy pop tune to please the executives at her label in the days before she decided to strike out on her own. Only later, she explained, did she realize how angry the song is. As she finished playing it, a woman in front of the stage opined, "But that was catchy!" Everyone who heard it laughed, except Mann, who didn't react at all. The moment was emblematic of the distant quality that marred the first half of a slender 85-minute set.

Touring without a new record to plug this year, Mann took the opportunity to explore her back pages. A seated club like the Birchmere is an ideal venue for this, but without a stronger connection to the audience, the courage to play the deep cuts isn't good for much. Mann strummed the first chord of "High on Sunday 51" at 7:30 on the nose, and was a dozen songs in before she said much more than "thank you" to a crowd that plainly adored her. Intermittently backed by a bassist-vocalist and a keyboardist, Mann presented her songs confidently but without notable expansion or reinterpretation. A rare exception was the revved-up new arrangement of Harry Nilsson's "One" (the night's only cover, ironically, which Mann recorded for the "Magnolia" soundtrack) that put Mann's guitar at the center and relegated the piano to a supporting role.

Mann eventually broke her near-silence to introduce a new song, "Medicine Ball," then invited four audience members onstage to play percussion on "Frankenstein." The stunt had a faint whiff of desperation about it, and sonically the tune was a mess, but it did succeed at last in conjuring the intimacy that the show had been missing. Opening her encore set with "Invisible Ink" and an accompanying story about her tattoos, Mann was spontaneous (granting a request for "Humpty Dumpty" only after confirming her pianist could play it), engaging and warm. Another half-hour in this vein might have rescued the show from its uneven start, but instead we got an obligatory "Wise Up" and then house lights.

-- Chris Klimek

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