Mann's show spiced with music and humor
For those of us who wrestle with warring impulses -- bah, humbug the holidays or succumb to the twinkly lights -- Aimee Mann has created an old-fashioned Christmas variety show that reminds us that it's possible to have our cynicism and eat our fruitcake too.
Surrounded by a top-notch four-man band, including the always-stunning guitarist Duke Levine, and a few funny-musical friends, the former Bostonian gave a 2-hour and 15-minute performance that, like the holidays themselves, was by turns delightful, discomfiting, and melancholy.
With moody renditions of traditional numbers like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and wistful originals like "Calling on Mary," the collegial show felt, pleasantly so, like the bittersweet afterglow of Christmas -- that time when the grown-ups sit around in the evening in a room lit just by the lights of the tree, telling stories in warm tones with the occasional rowdy outburst fueled by several cups of spiked eggnog.
The occasional upticks in energy came both from more whimsical numbers -- a swing through "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" with giddily dramatic narration by Grant Lee Phillips, who also played a few numbers of his own -- and the comic stylings of MC Paul F. Tompkins, "Saturday Night Live" star Fred Armisen, and the pink-tutu-clad, beer-swilling "Hanukkah Fairy."
The comic bits were hit and miss. Armisen's absurdist comedy of discomfort drew the most silence, but an impersonation of Saddam Hussein, with an inexplicable Liverpudlian accent, was amusing. Tompkins garnered giggles and proved to have a decent singing voice in zingy duets with Phillips and his hostess. Mann was clearly entertained by her friends and smiled, laughed, and cut up freely and often.
Those glimmers of joy were welcome. Whether her protagonists need to get their heads on straight ("Wise Up") or are so far from emotional salvation that even a cadre of superheroes couldn't help ("Humpty Dumpty"), they could use some good cheer. Mann offered it to them, and the audience, with a mesmerizing murmur, unerring sense of melody, and tasteful arrangements.
Like the snowflakes that dotted her seasonally festooned stage, the show was unique. Here's to making it an annual event.