In the hands of a lesser, more ordinary artist, a set of mostly soft, piano-driven songs played in front of a completely unadorned stage would probably come across as tasking and fairly lifeless for any onlookers. But in the hands of Aimee Mann and her two accomplices, no over-the-top theatrics, insane costumes or pyrotechnics were necessary. The audience last Friday evening at Campbell Hall was in for a rollicking good time, thanks to Mann’s trademark self-deprecating sense of humor and her willingness to play virtually any song the audience requested, whether she remembered exactly how to play it or not.
Mann spent the first third of the nearly two-hour-long performance playing a traditional set list, which included a number of her most well-known songs from the “Magnolia” soundtrack (“Save Me” and “Wise Up”) as well as from 2002’s Lost in Space. Mann even managed to slip in a number of songs most of the audience probably wasn’t expecting, including “Nightmare Girl,” a fairly obscure B-side, as well as songs from older albums like “Amateur.”
But it was the show’s request portion that truly showcased Mann’s talent as a performer: What could have felt messy and overly casual instead felt dynamic and exciting, as Mann and her fellow musicians showed off their musical prowess and dedication to improvisation, forgoing the canned, over-rehearsed feel of many a touring acts who get too comfortable reading directly off of a set list.
While sometimes this meant there would be a pause where the band would try to remember chords or figure out who was going to play what (leaving Mann to remark that she felt she should be making David Letterman jokes in the interim periods), more often than not, this led to the audience feeling as if they were witnessing the artist creating new meaning from old songs that have been out of the touring rotation for a while now.
Much credit is due to Mann’s dexterous backing performers, Jebin and Jamie, both excellent musicians who were up for anything, whether it was joining Mann for a three-part recorder intro to “Red Vines” (yes, I do mean the requisite third-grade instrument), scrambling all over the stage trading instruments or looking at each other with bemusement trying to figure out which song Mann had spontaneously begun to play.
After the audience gave the trio a thundering round of applause, Mann and her band returned to the stage to play an brief but impressive two-song encore, ending with “Voices Carry,” a number Mann wrote when she was a part of ’80s new wave act, ‘Til Tuesday, and one of her most well-known tracks, “One” (which is actually a cover that appeared in “Magnolia).