Right around the turn of the century, Aimee Mann struck on two ideas in the course of assembling her Acoustic Vaudeville shows with her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, that inform her concerts to this very day. The first was to eliminate the electric guitars that had provided much of the lifeblood of her songs up to then. The second was to tour with comedians as openers, who remained on stage to provide the banter that the headliners felt too awkward to provide for themselves. The electrics would soon return but remain a subdued secondary instrument, and Mann eventually began speaking for herself again but continued to incorporate comedy — whether straight comedians or comically-inclined songwriters — in her shows.
Friday at the Cabot in Beverly, it was possible to see not just the evolution of those choices but also the impulses that had driven them in the first place. Her five-piece band was acoustic-forward, even with Steve Elliott’s electric guitar; on the soft, lively swoosh of “Goodbye Caroline,” his stinging leads were mixed too low to bite. Accompanied solely by a lone acoustic and harmony vocal, “Rollercoasters” and “4th of July” were gentle and lovely. And with stuttering brush slaps, the Burt-Bacharach-with-a-dagger “Amateur” stepped lightly because to do otherwise would be too painful.
That distancing tactic wasn’t the only one Mann had in her arsenal. Though smartly melodic, she’s never been an overly demonstrative singer, getting overwhelmed by or even caught up in the emotion of her lacerating (self- or otherwise) lyrics. Instead, her clean warble offered a matter-of-fact sadness that presented her songs as cautionary tales, like a Cassandra accepting her fate of remaining unheeded. “Calling It Quits” offered triumphant resignation, and the verses of “Save Me” slowly fell into a hole before the chorus threw up a rope and waited, and waited.
As it always has, though, the arms’-length approach — and what was making comedians speak for her years ago but yet more distancing? — somehow only strengthened her material. Every piece of the heartbreaking and gorgeous “Wise Up” was in perfect, delicate balance, while “Patient Zero” came close to the budget-symphonic pop production of her earlier work and “Long Shot” was the most effective electric song, jagged guitar against a periodically crashing beat. She closed with “Deathly,” gaining momentum with every pass of the final rideout. Without pushing, Mann simply let the music say everything she wanted to.
Like Ben Folds with a guitar, opener Jonathan Coulton infused his songs with an irony so sharp that it came back around on itself until its edges were hard to see anymore. Singing about IKEA, the suburbs, and cat photos, he was patient with his jokes, building them smartly until they gained resonance beyond simply immediate laughter.
With Jonathan Coulton
At Cabot Street Cinema Theatre, Beverly, FridayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc