I’ve been a big fan of both Ted Leo and Aimee Mann since years ago when I first came across them in high school. Leo was a constant mainstay of the now defunct MTV2 show Subterranean during the early 2000s and Mann was the omnipresent soul and soundtrack artist for one of my favorite movies of all time,Magnolia. But even though I’ve loved both of these artists for over a decade each, I never got around to seeing them live. So I jumped at the chance to see the two kick start their tour together in the DC area they both know so well at The Birchmere, even if The Birchmere is a sort of weird venue for these two artists.
I’d expect Leo to perform somewhere like the Black Cat instead, but even though it was a bit awkward to watch Leo while people eat, he still pulled off a compelling set. I, like I would expect most people are, am used to seeing Leo perform alongside his band The Pharmacists, but while opening for Mann, Leo was solo. Leo performing solo however was kind of like a double-edged sword. It was great to hear some of these songs broken down to a simple guitar-and-vocals combo, but there’s an intensity to Ted Leo + the Pharmacists’ songs that make them incredibly compelling.
Only a few songs in, Leo polled the audience to see how many people were familiar with him and how many had no fucking clue who he was. The audience definitely leaned towards the latter, as the audience also was much older than expected. Since the audience wasn’t too familiar with him, he said that he’d plan on playing more new material. The set seemed about half and half, some new stuff, while also playing tracks like “The High Party” from Hearts of Oakand “The Mighty Sparrow” from The Brutalist Bricks. The older, more known songs have a power to being played in a much quieter, more intimate sound than without his band that can be appreciated, but I can’t help but kind of wish he was with his band to get the really powerful version of these songs.
But this softer version of Ted Leo’s songs led well into Aimee Mann’s set, which she prefaced by saying, “if you like The Eagles, you’ll enjoy tonight.” Mann started with three new songs from her new album Charmer, “Disappeared,” “Gumby,” and the album’s great new single “Labrador” which the band had performed the night before on Fallon. She stated that they’d probably sound better tonight since they aren’t as nervous, which instantly made her think she jinxed herself, then double-jinx herself for calling attention to it.
What I didn’t expect from Mann was how hilarious she was. I mean after following her on Twitter, I knew she had a great sense of humor, but her deadpan delivery of banter between songs was almost as fun as the songs themselves.
Mann played a few older songs like “Lost In Space” and “Living a Lie” before new song “Living a Lie,” which she wrote with her producer/bass player Paul Bryan, for a Aaron Sorkin musical that still hasn’t come to fruition.
After a few more tracks, the band left Mann on the stage alone, to which she began a trifecta of songs from Magnolia, which instantly had me swooning. She started with Save Me, then her pianist came out to perform Wise Up with her. Before playing Wise Up, she said the song should make you think of sad days, with the rain coming down and a cat in your lap. This melancholy viewpoint was shattered though when she started meowing before the song and had to start over. She then ended the Magnolia portion of the evening with One, the Harry Nilsson song she covered.
After another new song “Soon Enough,” a member of the audience let out a ‘Yee-Haw!” to which Mann said that she lived in Virginia and that the state isn’t redneck-y enough for ‘yee-haws.’ She also complained about how her husband will whistle around the house, but instead of whistling a song like a normal person, he will whistle just one note, which she called the act of a madman. This led the audience to whistle one note whenever Mann was quiet to tune her guitar.
For her encore, Mann played “4th of July” which she claimed she had to learn in the bathroom earlier that night and “Choice of the Matter” before playing her final song of the night, another track from Magnolia, “Deathly.”
Even though the venue may have been a bit awkward for the two, with sounds of silverware and dishes throughout the night coming through in songs, Leo and Mann put on a effective duo of performances that kicked off what should be a great and surprisingly hilarious tour for the two.