Aimee Mann ”whose songs occupy a quarter of my Creative Zen X-Fi MP3 player ‘ took requests last night at the City Winery on Varick Street; apparently she’d done something like this for the last two nights. This was her third of three shows with just two keyboard players who double as percussionists and background singers. There was a drum kit on stage. I don’t know who it belonged to and it didn’t matter.
Aimee Mann, who’s 48, looks like she hasn’t aged since her debut hit in 1985, “Voices Carry,” with her group ‘Til Tuesday. She’s still lanky and blonde, with a butterscotch voice and an uncanny ability to find hooks within hooks of gorgeous melodies coupled with savvy lyrics. She’s the spiritual daughter of Joni Mitchell and John Prine. You can’t decide if you want to hear her play the piano or the guitar more, sing a ballad or rock out.
The show ‘ clocking in over two hours ‘ was breezy and fun as Mann let the sold-out audience guide her through their choices of over 90 songs by writing them on paper airplanes, and sailing them onto the stage. The result was a collection of favorite songs Mann hasn’t played a while in concert. (She had to keep a lyric book out on a music stand for reference, which was just fine).”I can stay all night,” she told the audience, and a massive cheer went up.
So we got “Calling it Quits,” “Save Me,” and “Build a Wall,” the three best songs from her “Magnolia’ soundtrack; the magnificent “Mr. Harris,” from Mann’s first solo album, and the laconic, beautiful, “Amateur”; her Elvis Costello collaboration, “Other End of the Telescope,”’ as well as “Voices Carry” and a dozen or so other gems including “You Could Make a Killing,” “Ray,” “Coming Up Close,” and “Can’t Get My Head Around You.”
Here’s the thing about Aimee Mann: she had it all with ‘Til Tuesday. Their third album, “Everything’s Different Now,” is a brilliant chronicle of a terrible breakup, a truly great theme album. But she had problems galore at Epic Records. She broke up the band, and went on her own. But more label problems ensued including one, Imago, that just vanished from underneath her.
Mann and manager Michael Haussman decided to start their own label, and work outside the system. They took control of their lives, but at the same left the music business proper. It was a gamble. The result was independence, but the cost was no longer being in the big picture. Mann’s solo albums consist of just her compositions; it’s one of the strongest pop catalogs ever. But instead of being Queen Elizabeth, she became Mary Stuart, always on the outside, and seeming like she’s causing trouble.
Mann’s latest album is badly named ‘ “@#%&*! Smilers.” Why? Who knows? It contains many exquisite, catchy songs including “Free way,” which would be played on the radio if radio still existed;’ and “Stranger into Starman,” a haunting track that begs to be in a movie. On stage she reproduces her complicated productions with ease. Her lyrics are bitter pills delivered in cream puffs. She also relates to the audience well since most of them are her fervent, dedicated fans just praying that this album of colossal successes will be the breakthrough. The main thing is, don’t miss her live whatever you do. One day it’s all going to happen. And then you can say, you were there. I don’t care how long we have to wait.