Christmas Comes Early at Aimee Mann's Holiday Show at Bimbo's

Aimee Mann with Ted Leo, Liz Phair, Jonathan Coulton, and John Roderick
Bimbo’s 365 Club, San Francisco
Dec. 6

Better than: drinking egg nog that isn't spiked with anything.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, and Ted Leo dressed as Frosty the Snowman laying out his campaign platform for unseating Santa in the 2016 North Pole elections. All were present Sunday night as Aimee Mann and friends gathered for her annual tribute to the December 25 holiday.

Invoking the sensibilities of a vaudevillian variety show, Mann and Leo anchored the stage while guests like Liz Phair, Jonathan Coulton, and John Roderick, who weaved in and out for two hours of Christmas classics, holiday originals, and some truly top-notch stage banter. Leo and Mann are old hands at conversing on stage, having first joined forces in 2013 as The Both, and their comfort lambasting one another on stage was apparent as they traded barbs.

[jump] “You know what really burns me up,” asked Mann, as Leo continued to press on his qualifications for becoming the next Saint Nick by way of democratic election. “This is just another white male member of the establishment running for office.” She then confided to the crowd that she was once the first Mrs. Claus, and that she’d make a great Santa because “I know where all the bodies are buried.”

Mann also knows how to sing a Christmas song. Her holiday show has become a tradition in both her hometown of Los Angeles and elsewhere when she embarks on a small tour in the early days of December to spread her uniquely somber, but entirely beautiful, brand of winter cheer. Classics like “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” got a much needed makeover in the hands of Mann and Leo, scrubbed of their Bing Crosby sheen and rendered raw and potent. But, it was the original compositions that stole the show.

Guest Liz Phair introduced her song “Ho Ho Ho” by explaining, “This is my one true Christmas song, but it’s also depressing, which is why they let me on the tour.” Phair also enlisted Mann and Leo in a performance of her track “Supernova,” but it was “Why Can’t I Wreath” – a Christmas revision of her own “Why Can’t I” – that turned into one of the night’s most memorable moments.

Never one to be outdone, Mann later explained that she’d been writing holiday music long before her annual shows were underway, and that one of her earliest efforts had unfortunately been sanitized of its Christmas spirit. She then treated the audience to the original effort, a hilarious reimagining of her Til Tuesday hit “Voices Carry,” rewritten to focus on the efforts of wooing a new stepdad to get you presents. The chorus, “Hush hush / He’s your dad now / This is Gary,” was the best kind of silly and proof positive that even changing the lyrics can’t fade the folk-pop allure of Mann’s music.

Guest musicians Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick provided ample doses of comic relief throughout the proceedings. Coulton’s “Christmas is Interesting” was introduced as his effort to write something merry that is “secretly a sad song about my parents’ divorce.” A heated discussion onstage about which early '80s video game system was the most-desired Christmas present led to “2600,” Roderick and Coulton’s tribute to the Atari 2600 (Leo remains a staunch ColecoVision man). Later, Roderick stole the show as the titular Grinch in Mann’s cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Of course, not every moment of Sunday’s show was soaked in camp and reverie. With Mann at one microphone and the rest of her guests huddled around another, they delivered a powerful, accapella rendition of Mann’s “Calling on Mary.” Toward the evening’s close, she also revisited her Oscar-nominated song “Save Me,” a single that never seems to lose its luster no matter how often Mann plays it live. Her voice, an emotional bloodletting encased in fragile pop, caused Leo, who has played the song with her numerous times in the course of their tours, to admit afterwards that he failed to sing on the second chorus because he was too caught up in listening to Mann.

Bringing the festivities to a close was a wonderfully bizarre reveal that involved Coulton, dressed as Santa, removing his outfit to reveal a tunic and the stunning development that Santa is actually Jesus. This twist lead into the night’s closing number, a reimagining of “Superstar” from Jesus Christ Superstar highlighting “Jesus Claus” and “Santa Christ.” A tad blasphemous? Sure, although the source material is hardly gospel. More than anything, it was a spectacle of unified talent, cutting loose on stage in the name of Christmas cheer. Let us hope Mann doesn’t tire of the routine because it is assuredly the best gift one can hope to get in the month of December.

Critic’s Notebook:

– At one point Leo revealed a Shepard Fairy-inspired poster for his Santa campaign, complete with the slogan, “Get FrosTed.” How copies weren’t for sale at the merch table after the show is a mystery we may never solve.

– Another Ted highlight was his rendition of “The Ballad of the Christmas Donkey,” a wholly bizarre song that Leo claims makes his father cry. Google it and prepare to be baffled.

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