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Aimee Mann & Michael Penn - Acoustic Vaudeville, Shepherd's Bush Empire, 13 July 2000

 

Before I begin to drone on about the lovely Acoustic Vaudeville performance
on 13 July in London, let me say Beware! This excessively long account is for patient people who don't get a chance to see such shows.

The venue for the London show was the Shepherd's Bush Empire, an old BBC theatre that is usually too far away and too young (ie all standing and crowded) for my 33-year-old old fogey self. However, this gig was all seated, and I had excellent seats thanks to a friend with ticket booking talents.

Aimee Mann stepped on stage quite early to introduce the opening act. I was
pleased to see that the Penns had brought to Europe their touring partner,
comedian Patton Oswald, who amongst other things plays a small part in the
sitcom called King of Queens that sometimes appears on the
Paramount Comedy Channel on UK cable. At times, he was a bit crude for my
tastes, but he certainly had me chuckling on several occasions. Perhaps
because I'm an American living in London, I particularly appreciated a lot
of his humour, such as his disappointment with our game shows, which he said
usually consisted of people opening a dictionary and trying to see who could
best pronounce the words, and the winner would be awarded with the grand
prize of a mint.

At about 9pm, Aimee strolled on stage, tall and thin as ever, wearing denim
jeans and a long sleeved denim shirt and dead-straight blonde hair with
fringe. She was accompanied by the amazing keyboardist Patrick Warren, who
added enormous atmosphere to the entire show.

Aimee started with Fourth of July on acoustic guitar. This is the song that
drew my attention back to her after the absence of 'til Tuesday; I heard it
on a Q sampler and later saw her perform it on Jools Holland's show. This
night's performance of it was gorgeous and haunting, as always.

When she finished, she silently wandered off with barely a nod to her
husband as he came on stage. His music is a recent discovery for me, I have
to say; I only have MP4, which I love. I have never seen him live, and he
looked quite a lot different from what I had expected based on the
tie-sporting chap on the album cover. This man reminded me more of actor
John Turturro (Quiz Show, Barton Fink) and was wearing jeans with a dark
brown snakeskin-patterned shirt unbuttoned to the fourth button (didn't do
much for me, though). He, too, was amazingly thin; everyone should buy more
of their records so they can eat, poor things.

Michael Penn picked up an acoustic guitar and started with Free For All's
Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In), perhaps appropriately in light of
my comments, lovely though he was. He was in fine voice and the song was
terrific. Patrick amazed me for the first of many times that night by
playing an amazing electric guitar solo on the keyboards; I eventually
started to wonder if he was actually playing one of those steel lap guitars,
but his hands remained on the keys.

After that number, Aimee returned to the stage, accompanied by Buddy the
electric guitarist, who looked like Phil Mitchell of Eastenders gone dapper
in a snazzy suit and trilby, and drummer/percussionist John. Michael walked
off stage until Aimee had a word and he returned and provided backing
vocals, as did Buddy, for a song from Aimee's latest album and EP, Bachelor
No 2, called Red Vines, which sounded wonderful.

As Michael picked up his acoustic guitar for the next number, Aimee
explained that they'd decided after a gig at the Largo in Los Angeles that
their stage banter was useless, so they brought in a professional to do it
for them. She welcomed Patton Oswald back to the stage, and he promptly
introduced himself as Aimee Mann and read from a tiny notebook in a deadpan
voice, 'Are you ready to rock? I can't hear you' and carried on in that vein
until Aimee launched into Jon Brion co-write Choice in the Matter from her
I'm With Stupid album. Patrick provided another amazing guitar solo on the
keyboard.

Aimee then switched to tambourine whilst Michael prepared to play Me Around
from the Resigned album, a wonderful number with a Stray Cat beat, after
which Patton laid it on thick with an introduction la 'I'm Michael Penn
and I'm soooo depressing,' which had Michael in stitches. He then followed
with the splendid Small Black Box from the same album.

Without pausing, Michael launched into Perfect Candidate, one of several
favourites from MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident), during which Aimee
played electric bass where warranted.

Michael took over the electric bass next during Aimee's eagerly applauded
song How Am I Different from Bachelor No 2, which means that a lot of the
audience must have ordered that album or EP from her US website, unless they
were just pretending to recognise it by gleefully welcoming it. Michael
didn't sing on this one at all; backing vocals were provided by dapper
Buddy, and the 'orchestra' was provided by Patrick.

They played straight into Aimee's catchy That's Just What You Are from her
second solo album, on which she sings the song with Glenn Tilbrook and Chris
Difford of Squeeze. Michael kept playing electric bass, though he did seem
to be reading the chords all evening from a music stand near him. Never
mind; I was impressed that he was so versatile.

Enter Patton to imitate Aimee again, doing his best to embarrass the couple
('I like to kiss my husband's chest--it's like granite') and delivering a
funny account of how they supposedly spent their day, from buying an Egg
McMuffin to visiting nothing but American sights and stores, landing in
Starbucks and only venturing out after that to buy a thermometer that looks
like Big Ben. He entertained the Penns as much as the audience; they always
seemed slightly wary but always delighted to hear what he would say.

Next Michael continued on bass and backing vocals whilst Aimee performed Long Shot from her second album. Barely pausing afterwards, Patrick introduced on electric piano a song that everyone recognised from Magnolia, the wonderful Wise Up.

Patton then pretended to be a prima-donna Mann, telling how (s)he had demanded of Starbucks staff to be called 'Academy Award Nominee Aimee Mann,' and when Patton had the member of staff supposedly retorting that Aimee wasn't good enough to beat a Phil Collins cartoon, Aimee laughed without any bitterness, totally enjoying the lark. She then sang the song in question,
Save Me, from Magnolia, with Michael still on bass.

For the final song performed from Magnolia that night, Aimee insisted on
audience participation, despite a dislike of it herself, asking us to
provide an unusual rhythm section. Since we could not clink our glasses
(alas, they were only plastic cups), we jangled our keys on request to
create an amazing background to Aimee and Michael's acoustic guitars whilst
Buddy flipped open and shut his lighter to the beat. It all somehow even
improved the already perfect You Do.

Aimee then switched to electric bass while Michael strummed his acoustic
guitar during the brilliant Bedlam Boys from his album March. Afterwards,
he had a go at stage banter and started to explain the unusual subtitle to
MP4, one of his many records that wasn't available over here, he bemoaned,
until prompted that they could be purchased on the Internet or in the
'lobby.' Patton cut in and took over with a supposedly more interesting
explanation of his own, which again amused the Manns and encouraged Michael
to join in by following up spontaneously with the line 'and then I undid the
goat,' which got a surprised hearty laugh from his wife. Another great song
from MP4, Don't Let Me Go, followed.

When he finished, someone called out for one of my very favourite tracks
from his latest album, High Time, and Michael barely paused for breath
before stating, 'All right, I will,' and then singing it wonderfully, with
Aimee again providing bass in the appropriate parts. Patrick provided
lovely cello via the keyboards.

Next came my favourite from MP4, Bucket Brigade, which he played on his own
for a bit whilst Buddy left the stage and Aimee sat on a stool, bass around
her neck but pointed towards the floor as if feeling neglected, and she
watched her husband carefully as he performed. She eventually rose to
contribute some bass as Buddy returned to sing and play the electric guitar
gently.

During the next number, March's Brave New World, the verses are hurried as
they are in Elvis Costello's Pump It Up. Mid-way through, Aimee gave Buddy
a knowing nod, and to execute their secret plan, she moved towards Michael
so that she was standing within inches of him, then danced about madly in
order to distract him, which she finally did, over and over again, so that
he kept messing up the words and having to stop and re-start. I thought
this was a wonderful testament to the love between them and the fact that
they enjoy fun; anyone else might have got irritated at least, but he
laughed and enjoyed it, and when he finally managed the full verse, despite
Buddy and the others singing 'Four Leaf Clover' and later 'Don't Sit Under
the Apple Tree' over his efforts, he received well-deserved applause, and he
beamed brightly. Buddy broke a string early on in the song, and Michael
finished the number by breaking one of his own on his acoustic guitar, so
the intense passion and tomfoolery of the song cost them two strings.

They'd been playing for an hour and 10 minutes and left the stage.

Fortunately, they returned soon enough, with Patton holding a cup of tea
whilst delivering his next introduction, which allowed a roadie to begin
re-stringing Michael's guitar. Michael picked up the electric bass, Aimee
played acoustic guitar, and they sang a fragment of the Sonny and Cher
classic I Got You, Babe, which the audience seemed to think was adorable.

Next, Aimee introduced a hit from her 'til Tuesday days that she'd written
with Elvis Costello, the Other End (of the Telescope), and announced that
guitarist Buddy would do an Elvis impression in the third verse. Michael
played bass, reading the chords for what must have been an unfamiliar song
in any case, and Buddy indeed gave us the best Declan McManus impression I
have ever heard.

When the roadie returned with Michael's repaired guitar, Aimee switched to
electric bass and began strumming away marvellously, whilst Aimee looked
baffled but followed along. He played a magnificent song from March called
Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun, after which they left the stage again.

Aimee and Michael returned shortly after that, and Aimee said they didn't know what to play. That prompted everyone in the audience to shout out a
favourite song, which en masse was completely incomprehensible, something Michael illustrated by speaking what I think was Spanish back at us. Aimee refused an audible request for Ghost World (I think), as no one would know that, but agreed to play I've Had It from her wonderful first album
Whatever. She advised that Michael did not know that song so he would stand
back and have a cool drink of water, which he did. She gave firm
suggestions to the other members of the band as to what they might
contribute, but they all seemed a step ahead of her. Buddy gave up his
guitar in favour of backing vocals and lighter-clicking again. The crowd
loved this faultless performance of an enjoyable song fittingly about
touring and trying to make it in the music business.

Finally, Aimee introduced a song of Michael's where she would do an Ethel
Merman impression towards the end. Before the music started, she
mentioned that they'd had fun and that she really wished she still lived in
London 'quite frankly.'  She played tambourine and contributed vocals,
Michael played guitar, and most of the audience instantly recognised his hit
No Myth from his March album. It was a wonderful, bright and cheerful
tune. I was amused when, during the guitar solo, the lighting technician
turned up the lights on Buddy, who of course was just playing rhythm; the
solo was being played again on keyboards by Patrick. Sure enough, at the
end, Aimee contributed an Ethel Merman impression, which frankly was the
only thing she did badly all evening.

At 10.35pm, they left the stage permanently, but the audience still remained
seated, clapping and stomping the floor with their feet, in hopes of getting
more magnificent music from the marvellous performers, but we were
disappointed by the signal of the lights coming up. I had heard that they'd
performed the 'til Tuesday hit Voices Carry as an encore in the States, so I
was surprised to realise that the performance was over.

Since Aimee Mann is so well-known here where her husband's albums have not
even been released, you would have thought that the Acoustic Vaudeville
show would have been a bit Mann-heavy. However, they played exactly the
same number of songs--11 from each and one Sonny and Cher duet. All of the
songs were performed perfectly, with the exception of the fun flubs of
Michael's Brave New World. It was a truly excellent night.
 

Copyright 2000 by TC. All rights reserved.

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