Photos by Mark T. Osler.
By some yardsticks of “what constitutes alternative music” (say, highly structured blonde hair, a propensity to stand up in the middle of an opera and scream, “He said, ‘Shut up!’”), Aimee Mann was at her most “alternative” in 1985.
In retrospect, that was Mann’s mainstream phase, being the year in which she sang her only Top Ten hit, “Voices Carry,” fronting early MTV darlings ‘Til Tuesday.
Since conventional musical yardsticks are broken, Mann has met the industry standard for “alternative” throughout much of her 15-year solo career, despite the fact that — like Marc Cohn, co-billed with Mann for a Wednesday concert at Chautauqua Auditorium — Mann makes more melodic, accessible music than nearly anyone on the airwaves.
As her fans may have heard, a few times, Mann has endured her share of music-industry slings and arrows. She is at turns humorous, petulant and accepting of her fate as a not-as-popular-as-you’d-expect musician. These three attributes were on display Wednesday, when her five-piece band showcased her new album, “@#%&*! Smilers,” and other tuneful, rueful songs about love, malaise and various interpersonal subjects.
On “Freeway,” her new single, Mann’s slurry voice soared on lyrics like, “You’ve got a lot of money, but you can’t afford the freeway.” (Sounds like pop music’s first down-with-high-gas-prices! rant, but in fact it’s about an L.A. junkie on the decline.) On other standout songs such as “Fourth of July,” Mann’s voice was beautifully tethered by bassist and harmonist Paul Bryan. Mann’s band forsook electric guitars, but two keyboardists (Jebin Bruni and Jamie Edwards) lent a theatrical air to many songs.
Theatricality is a natural milieu for Mann, whose soundtrack to the 1999 film “Magnolia” earned Mann her most mainstream exposure of recent years. She turned Harry Nilsson’s “One” into an undulating, playful treat, and her approach on the ballad “Save Me” was warm and personal without seeming overly precious. Mann’s music evokes bygone generations — not the actual music of olden days, but the homes, the furniture (or at least today’s thrift-shop incarnations).
Mann’s set was hampered by a muddy sound mix that occasioned a few snarky, lost-in-translation exchanges with audience members. Chautauqua’s creaky charms have no doubt been addressed ad infinitum; let’s just say the venue’s idiosyncrasies work for artists with a certain humility and warmth, and not for others.
Mann introduced another quasi-soundtrack song (written for “Shrek 3,” but rejected) with an amusing rant that illuminated both Hollywood’s wayward ways, and why Mann and the music industry were no match to begin with — she began with “My manager told me not to tell this story….” Closing the show with “How Am I Different?” from her criminally underexposed “Bachelor No. 2″ album, Mann left behind a strong taste of her independent streak, and a bit of sadness that her music is not a soundtrack for more of us.
Three years ago, Marc Cohn played Chautauqua; soon afterward, in Denver, he was shot in the head. Still, he returns. And in haunting stories and songs that exhume and honor the ghosts of the past, he overcomes. On Wednesday at Chautauqua, amid self-deprecating allusions to the life-threatening gunshot wound he suffered in a 2005 Denver carjacking incident (he’s now fully recovered), it was clear that Cohn has turned this and other hard knocks into revelation.
You probably first, and probably last, encountered Marc Cohn in 1987. The spine-chilling melodies of songs like “Walking in Memphis” and “Silver Thunderbird” positioned him as a sort of junior Piano Man balladeer. What was less clear then, but clearer Wednesday, was how much rhythm drove “Walking in Memphis,” and how much Cohn has evolved beyond the piano-guy mold his early hits led us to expect.
To be sure, there was a grand piano on stage Wednesday, but for the first several songs it was a drink coaster, as Cohn went right to the center-stage mike to belt out a few soulful, slow-burn rockers, with a hard-boiled, deliberate delivery that hinted at Joe Cocker and Bob Seger. While he took a harder-rock approach than some might expect, softer songs such as “Rest for the Weary” (from his second album, “The Rainy Season”) and “Old Soldier” (written for David Crosby) were most arresting.
In a confessional mode throughout his hour-long set (Mann fit in more songs), Cohn opened up further after he finally tackled the elephant in the middle of the room, the piano, telling the inspired backstory behind “Walking in Memphis” (which earned him a mid-set standing ovation) and the healing process behind his encore, “Live Out the String.”
In contrast to Mann — whose songs and demeanor approached adversity sardonically and defiantly, and bounced off the walls — Marc Cohn’s humble, thankful take on life seemed much more at home within the matchstick Chautauqua Auditorium.
He ruminated on his return to that stage after the shooting (which he never fully explicated onstage, calling it simply “that weird incident”), and recalled an anecdote from “The World According to Garp” that he said helped him see the one-time nature of such experiences. “I’m as safe as I can be, right?”
Jeremy Simon is a Lafayette-based Reverb contributor.
Mark T. Osler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and regular Reverb contributor.