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

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

 
Comments () | Archives (7)

I have been to this show the last three years. In the past, the show took on a bigger, tighter, warmer feeling. The first one I saw was at the El Rey and last years show, the Wiltern. There was multi media, many cameo performances, and a holiday feeling that just didn't go over the same at the dreary, often downright bland setting that is Largo. It's like the building and staff actually sucked the life right out of the performances. Even comedian Tim Heidecker mused that Largo wouldn't pick up his parking tab. More than likely just part of his act.

Anyway, it just felt as if this years show didn't have the "oomph" behind it that it usually does. I love Aimee Mann and all of her friends. All are tremendously talented and I excitedly look forward to this show every year. This show just seemed to miss the mark. I hope they do this show again next year with all of the bells and whistles that it has had in the past in a venue more suited for a show of that size and scope.

In a nod to her wonderful sensibilities, when Aimee Mann is dead I hope she's remembered as one of the great American songwriter/performers.
Her consistent proclivity towards moribund themes in sweet candy flavored wrappers is unique and universal. Often her work is like gargling water after a long sweaty hike although it's from the bank of the Ganges downstream from a funeral and a few people doing their laundry. Refreshing yet appealingly awkward.

Yawn, sounds like a couple of hours of pretentious, boring drivel. Sheesh, I guess it's hard to be intellectually satiric these days. Of course you need some intellect with that.

Isn't Charles Manson yesterday's news?

Zoey Dechanel is tagged as Aimee Mann in this picture.

Okay, I guess my previous comment on how I felt about the show being pretentious and boring was censored. I apologize. It really didn't sound boring.

I would have liked to attend the concert, but I live in Europe and the plane ticket is very high. I love Aimee's music and hearing her christmas music would have been nice. I am glad the internet exists and its great that I can look up reviews and read what other people think and even better read news on concerts.

I 100% agree with Scott's comments. This year's show - although still fun - just didn't have the same feel as years past. Was really looking forward to this show and in fact, when we found out she wasn't going to San Francisco this year - booked our tickets to LA for the weekend. Still glad we made the trip but hoping for a little something more next year!


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