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Live review: Aimee Mann skips the merry and bright in Christmas concert

December 15, 2009 | 12:31 pm

The singer-songwriter and other musical guests at Largo at the Coronet take a sometimes skeptical, sometimes irreverent, and often funny take on the holidays.

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As a piece of dramatic scaffolding, the holiday variety show offers plenty of room from which to hang well-worn material: Christmas music, bits of children's theater, jokes about what to get your mother-in-law. The form doesn't typically include repeated references to Charles Manson, but that didn't stop Aimee Mann from bringing up the convicted killer several times Monday night at Largo at the Coronet, where she and a group of all-star pals played the second of three Christmas concerts scheduled there this week.

"Will you please stop talking about murder?" pleaded comedian Paul F. Tompkins with mock exasperation near the end of the two-hour show.

A longtime fixture (along with her husband, Michael Penn) on the L.A. singer-songwriter scene, Mann takes a skeptical approach to the yuletide repertoire. (The Largo engagement marked the fourth year in a row that she's played Christmas shows, either in Southern California or on the road.) On Monday she described her objections to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" "on moral grounds" and singled out "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" as her favorite holiday song.

"It's a little spooky and a little creepy," she explained. "That's how I like to think of myself."

Backed by a competent but reserved four-piece band, Mann tended toward tunes with room for some ambivalence about the season, such as "Whatever Happened to Christmas," the mildly outraged Jimmy Webb plaint that opens her 2006 album, "One More Drifter in the Snow," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which at Largo sounded more like a threat than a promise.

Tompkins joined Mann for a knowing rendition of "Fairytale of New York," the delightful Pogues chestnut that memorably opens on Christmas Eve "in the drunk tank."

Mann's guests shared her reservations. Conjuring a cozy tree-trimming tableau in "Christmastime," Penn couldn't help pointing out that "tinsel will cover where the branches don't grow." ("That's about as close to festive as I get," he admitted.) Singer-actress Zooey Deschanel and her new husband, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, gave a wistful indie-pop lilt to "Coldest Night of the Year," by Brill Building staples Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. And "Weird Al" Yankovic cropped up for an irreverent Q&A session with Tompkins on the history of Hanukkah.

The evening's most compelling performance came from Nellie McKay, the precocious cabaret prankster who more than any of her contemporaries has illuminated the fineness of the line separating sarcasm and sincerity. She appeared first for an appealingly boozy take on "Here Comes Santa Claus," during which she dropped her microphone and tapped out a rowdy piano solo. And she ended her portion of the show by covering (after a fashion) James Brown's "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto."

Between those two comic set pieces, McKay picked up a ukulele, very often an onstage signal of zaniness to come. Yet after introducing her next number as a favorite of Doris Day's -- "It's a little known fact that Doris Day once had an affair with Santa Claus before she was a virgin," she added -- McKay played "The Christmas Waltz" with a heartbreaking simplicity that said everything there is to say about the holidays' complicated emotional swirl.

Mann got in some good jokes after that (regarding Manson, among other topics), but she never offered anything so profound.

--Mikael Wood

Photo: Ben Gibbard, from left, with Aimee Mann, Zooey Deschanel and actor Rich Somme. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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