“God bless you all for showing up again.” Aimee Mann was grateful for the sellout crowd that braved a heavy wintry mixfall Thursday night at the 9:30 Club. A textbook example of a critically lauded but commercially challenged artist, Miss Mann doesn’t take her audience for granted especially on the night of an eagerly anticipated TV special.
“I appreciate you coming out and missing the documentary on Michael Jackson,” said Miss Mann, joking that she would catch the bizarre spectacle on her TiVo, the newfangled commercial-free TV replay machines. “I can’t wait to get my first nose job.”
In the days when a saner Mr. Jackson was selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of records instead of personal assets, Miss Mann fronted a scrappy new wave band from Boston called ‘Til Tuesday, scored a minor hit and promptly slid down the chute into the collective memory hole.
Then, in 1999, came an acclaimed art film called “Magnolia.” Not only did its soundtrack consist mostly of Miss Mann’s compositions, its director, Paul Thomas Anderson, said her music was the chief inspiration for its screenplay.
Miss Mann nodded a few times in “Magnolia’s” direction, playing the stark soul-revealers “Wise Up” and “Save Me,” but the focus was on her latest release, “Lost in Space.”
Conservatively clad in a darktailored blazer and necktie with just a wedge of a lime-green blouse underneath, Miss Mann opened with a pair of tunes from “Space.” Both “Real Bad News” and “The Moth” showcased her characteristically depressed lyrics sweetened by catchy hooks and limber melodies that climb gracefully into her falsetto range.
Other “Space” songs included “Humpty Dumpty,” the album’s first single, “Invisible Ink” and “Pavlov’s Bell.” Only one song from the ‘Til Tuesday era “The Other End (of the Telescope),” co-written with Elvis Costello made it onto the playlist.
Her solid road band guitarist Julian Coryell, bassist Paul Bryan, drummer John Sands and keyboardist Jebin Bruni delivered Miss Mann’s quietly folky songs with just the right amount of dynamic punchiness and slinky surges of full-on rock.
Mr. Bruni, in particular, was a strong presence, churning out the interstellar atmospherics of the “Lost in Space” production. Mr. Coryell, who, with a thick mop of black curly hair, looks remarkably like a young Jimmy Page, added fluid, George Harrison-style guitar solos.
The band cooked at a slow burn as Miss Mann, who occasionally slung on a bass guitar when not rhythmically strumming her acoustic, pranced coltishly on her stalky legs around a stage backed with three long-flowing scrims onto which was projected changing, mood-appropriate colored light.
Miss Mann has a reputation derived from both her songs and her history of squabbles with record labels for being prickly, introverted, even tortured.
At Virginia’s Birchmere on a previous tour with her musician husband, Michael Penn, the shy performer actually employed a stand-up comic to serve as surrogate stage patterer and audience interactivity specialist.
Anyone expecting this Aimee of old was in for a happy surprise Thursday night. The performer impersonating Miss Mann onstage at 9:30 was girlishly buoyant, endearingly self-deprecating, radiantly lovely with her swishing, fine-spun gold and funny enough to star in her own HBO comedy special.
If being an independent is this much fun, everybody should leave their record label.
“Who yelled ‘Free Bird’?” she demanded, referring to the overplayed Lynyrd Skynyrd song that some wiseguy inevitably requests of a live band.
She didn’t play “Free Bird” thank goodness but she did play Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” She even brought the sozzled doofus who had requested the song onto the stage and let him sing backing vocals as she cranked out a rollicking cover of the reactionary anthem of every hippie-cracker’s favorite Southern rock band.
Getting by with a little help from Duncan Sheik, the singer-songwriter who opened Thursday’s show, Miss Mann also covered “Wonderwall,” a song by the British rock band Oasis. It was a tribute, she said, to the band’s guitarist, Noel Gallagher, on whom she copped to having a crush.
During an audience-request portion of the show, in which song requests were airmailed to the stage via paper airplane, Miss Mann even coaxed her band into joining her in a spontaneous verse-chorus of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil.”
Playful though she was, Miss Mann still delivered the serious goods. There was the reflective acoustic ballad “4th of July,” from her 1993 solo debut, “Whatever,” and a final encore of “Deathly,” the misery-laden cut from the “Magnolia” soundtrack.
Ten years into a solo career, Miss Mann is clearly brimming with confidence in her work. She also has blossomed a little unexpectedly into an irresistible live performer, the kind who just might find an audience as large as her talent.
All we can say is: Michael who?