It’s hard to know how to properly pre-game for an Aimee Mann concert. Fans of the singer-songwriter know that energetic dancing is not likely to be encouraged at a Mann show. A beer or a glass of wine is likely more than sufficient alcoholic lubrication, and on Friday night at the Fillmore, it was an ideal mindset for fans who watched Mann, awash in a soft spotlight, deliver a treasure trove of forlorn melodies, including reworkings of fan favorites, like “Save Me,” and new tracks from her recently released eighth album, Mental Illness.
Before Mann’s set began, opener Jonathan Coulton set the scene with songs from his latest work, Solid State, a self-described concept album about “the internet, trolls, artificial intelligence, and how love and empathy will save humanity.” With only an acoustic guitar, Coulton reveled in music that toed the line between humorous and dark, even inviting Mann to accompany him for several songs.
Coulton glibly told the audience he would be playing “the sad songs” before Mann returned to perform tracks from her latest album which she described as being “about people who have their shit together.”
They then pushed the joke further by actually improvising a song from Mann’s hypothetical “cheery” album.
“Made a to-do list and checked it off,” Mann sang.
“Didn’t have any missed opportunities,” Coulton added. “Communicated well with all the people I care about.”
The tongue-in-cheek joke is of course a reference to the often gloomy, maligned fates of the characters in Mann’s non-imagined work. While the artist herself is quite funny on stage — she counts many of the finest comedians from the Los Angeles area as close friends — her musical output conjures a very different set of emotions. But damn if she isn’t funny when she isn’t strumming a guitar.
Before launching into Mental Illness cut “Patient Zero,” Mann introduced the track as “a song about Hollywood and betrayal and disappointment and Andrew Garfield.”
She also introduced her opener as “Little Johnny Coulton” as he was invited to the stage numerous times throughout her set to provide guitar and backing vocals. Mann’s longtime touring bandmate Paul Bryan was wearing a wide-brimmed white hat, and Mann noted that taken together with her own bell sleeve black dress, they collectively had “a real Nicks and Buckingham thing going on.”
Speaking of nicknames, Mann also regaled the sold-out crowd with a rundown of the prison nicknames each member of her band had been assigned by the crew. Bryan was “Eightball,” her keyboardist was “Nacho,” and she, of course, was “Boss Lady.”
While one could argue a negative connotation to Mann’s penitentiary moniker, the label is actually quite fitting. Not only has Mann flourished with a solo career constructed beyond the confines of major labels and relentless touring and festival appearances, but her fans have long supplied her with the creative freedom to eschew genre limitations or strive for smash singles.
In fact, Coulton’s Solid State was released by SuperEgo Records — Mann’s independent label.
Fans were treated to the full breadth of Mann’s discography starting with the evening’s first three songs, where the pastoral finger-picking of Whatever’s “Fourth of July” gave way to the folk twang of “Little Bombs” from 2005’s The Forgotten Arm before settling into the more timeless ache of “Stuck in the Past” off Mental Illness. Mann’s career has enabled her to reach anywhere in her catalogue and find a song anchored by her tender vocals and immaculate ability to tell a story in the space of minutes.
Lest one worry that every Mann song stems from a place pain and longing, she also told the audience that Mental Illness’ lead single “Goose Snow Cone” was inspired by a cat she knows named Goose that she saw on Instagram while on tour in Ireland.
Of course, that song is actually about loneliness, but fans of Mann should expect nothing less.
Friday night at the Fillmore, those fans were given the full array of Mann’s work, including “Long Shot,” a single from her criminally underrated sophomore album I’m With Stupid. With plenty of banter and a well-rehearsed setlist, Aimee Mann’s latest stop in San Francisco was a perfect encapsulation of her nuance as a musical pessimist who wields her great sense of humor and songwriting prowess with equal force.