Aimee Mann comes back to Berklee

A review of Aimee Mann at the Berklee Performance Center on July 26, 2008

, Contributing Writer

Aimee Mann began her musical career working as a register girl at the original Newbury Comics store. Since then she has spent time in Los Angeles, had her songs featured in acclaimed films such as Magnolia and Jerry Maguire and has embarked on several headlining tours. Her current tour in support of newly released album @#%&! Smilers brought her back to Boston to play for a capacity crowd that was more than happy to welcome her home. Touring with a four-piece band Mann was able to play several songs from her considerable repertoire, along with numerous audience requests.

Proving that she had complete respect from the audience, Mann interestingly chose to open with “Stranger into Starman” which is quiet and slow, not the typical blow the doors off the place opener that is employed by so many artists trying to grab the attention of the audience after a long set change. Following “Stranger into Starman,” Mann continued to launch right into songs from her newest album playing “Looking for Nothing” and “Freeway.” These songs generated loud cheers from the audience and had people singing along, which is surprising considering the album was just released last month. Did I mention that Aimee Mann fans are a loyal people?

Showing off her folk-song style laced with strong harmonies and great instrumental overlap Mann played “Phoenix”, through which emotion resonates as Aimee sings. Delivering lines like “It’s hard to know when to cut and run/you balance heartache with your fun/and when the scales tip, you know you’re done,” this song walks the fine line between the agonizing sadness of abandoning someone you love with the unspoken hopefulness that you will find better.

As if to break the somber tension, the formerly restrained Berklee audience began to shout out requests for the band. Mann jokingly told the audience that they would need to submit requests in writing at the front of the stage in order for them to be considered. To that even more members of the crowd called out their favorite tunes and Aimee replied “funny, none of this makes sense unless it is in writing at the front of the stage” as people began streaming to the stage with pen and paper in hand. This crowd was certainly one of a kind.

Getting back to the music Mann began “Great Beyond,” also from her new album, but before fully launching into the song she stopped to let the audience know that “according to the message board, this is the worst song on the new album.” Taking a break from the new stuff, a song from Oscar nominated Magnolia; “Save Me” was next. It is songs like this that truly make an Aimee Mann concert special. The sullen and melancholy lyrics provoke one set of emotions while the upbeat instrumentals over which they are sung require something completely different. The entire experience leaves the audience as a living conundrum – should I be sad because of the lyrics or dancing along to the beat? Luckily Mann didn’t give us too much time to ponder this situation as she began “Calling It Quits” off of her Bachelor No. 2 album, this song amped up the energy with a strong drum introduction and the loudest instrumental support from the band so far.

Noticing how large the pile of requests at the front of the stage had become Aimee took some time to fulfill the demands of her loyal followers. Starting with “Goodbye Caroline” Mann performed alone on stage with just her guitar before being joined by background vocal and keyboard for the last verse. She then started the first verse of “Telescope” before stopping to switch to “Coming Up Close” which took a humorous turn as Mann made up lyrics for the opening verses that she had forgotten. She remembered the heart of the song as she hauntingly sang “Don’t you know that I can make a dream that’s barely half awake come true” before returning to “Telescope” to sing the complete song this time. “Fourth of July” also allowed the band to take a break as Mann performed the first half of the song with no vocal or instrumental support. Mann put aside her guitar in favor of the bongos for “You’re With Stupid Now” and was the last song she would perform without her whole band on stage.

“Little Tornado” brought the audience’s energy back up and was followed by the chair-dance inducing “Thirty One Today” which according to Mann is “about being in the state of mind that you should have your shit together by now.” Before moving on, Mann told a story about the writing process for the next song. She was very entertaining in her telling of the story, but it did take a while, so I’ll spare you all of the details. Basically, she began writing this song for the opening scene of Shrek 3, but after several re-writes the studio passed which was probably a good thing as Mann said “the song was supposed to be all, You Can Do It, and that’s not really my specialty.” So she went back to the beginning, did some research on Snow White, and created the “creepy, cool” version of “Borrowing Time” you can find on the @#%&! Smilers album.

Going back to the requests pile Mann played “Red Vines” followed by “How Am I Different” which rose in intensity as the song progressed and ended on an amazing instrumental solo as Aimee thanked the audience. An instant standing ovation capped off the nearly twenty song set list.

Coming back on stage for her encore, Mann began with “Voices Carry” which speaks a lot to the merit of Mann’s emotionally wrought, yet gentle vocal talent; she isn’t pigeonholed into one sound. And she is certainly not a one-hit wonder that hopes to sell out venues based on one big name song. “Voices Carry” wasn’t even one of the songs in the request pile that Mann had read aloud earlier, but it garnered applause from the crowd as if they had been holding their collective breath waiting for her to play it.& The encore wrapped up with a rousing rendition of “Deathly” that brought the audience to its feet before the last notes were played.

Aimee Mann has come a long way since her days behind the register at Newbury Comics but if the outpouring of affection from her fans at Berklee is any indication, I think it is safe to say her albums will be selling off the shelves for years to come.

Opening band The Submarines were a great compliment to Aimee Mann as they were able to get the crowd engaged from the moment they took the stage. With a set list featuring songs like “Wake Up Song,” “The Thorny Thicket,” and “The Brightest Hour” they had the audience dancing in their seats. The band was thrilled when songs went off without a hitch and the lead singer had a smile on her face that seemed she genuinely could not control. Their more mainstream, pop style, mixed with their exuberant energy makes them a fun band to watch and likely one we’ll be hearing more of in the future. Not to mention they had the most seamless incorporation of a xylophone into modern music since…well, when was the last time you heard a xylophone in modern music?

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