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Live review: Aimee Mann at the Wiltern

December 11, 2011 | 10:50 pm

The performer's annual holiday shows are more wistful than celebratory, and this year was another blue Christmas showcase, with shots of comedy for good measure.

Aimee-mann
It's not any singer who can take a classic Christmas song as sparklingly effervescent as "Winter Wonderland," with its images of sleigh bells ringing and snow glistening, and transform it into a meditation on holiday angst.

But that's a big part of what makes singer-songwriter Aimee Mann's annual holiday concerts so weirdly endearing.

Saturday at the Wiltern Theater, moving up from the more intimate surroundings of Largo, where it's previously been held, Mann sang the 1934 song by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith early in the sixth edition of her own private winterfest. At a far slower, more deliberate pace than the jaunty tune is typically played, her version found her musing wistfully on what it might mean to embrace the lyric's upbeat sentiments: "a beautiful sight, we are happy tonight -- gone away is the bluebird, here to stay is a new bird."

Not in this lifetime, her arrangement seems to say.

What Mann knows fully how to embrace is her inner Charlie Brown, and she and comedian Paul F. Tompkins, one of a handful of guests she brought along this year, made that obvious at the outset of the 90-minute performance, for which the Wiltern stage was outfitted with a pair of festively decorated Christmas trees and oversized holiday lights above.

The quartet that backed Mann for the show opened with a reading of Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown theme music, played soulfully as if by Booker T. & the MGs, and then Mann came out and ventured that animated yuletide special's other signature song, the melancholy "Christmastime Is Here."

That's one of the songs from her charming 2006 holiday album, "One More Drifter in the Snow," so on one level it was an obvious bit of concert programming. But Tompkins quickly broke in and gently admonished Mann, "Too soon! You have to work up to a song like that," then playfully used Lucy's line to Charlie, "Aimee, you're the only person I know who doesn't feel happy at this time of year."

The reality, of course, is that because the holidays can be the most stressful time of the year for many people, Mann tries to recognize that truth without abandoning her yearning to join in with the joyful spirit we're told we should feel.

Saturday's performance felt like a low-budget Christmas play in which Mann often poked fun at her own reputation for exploring alienation. She got a lot of help from Tompkins, as ersatz ringmaster, and Tim Heidecker, taking the role of a TV producer bent on happying up the proceedings.

Nellie-mckay4Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay also contributed strongly, strolling onstage with a ukulele and party dress for a sweetly twisted duet with her hostess on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Mann's husband, Michael Penn, joined the party, offering "This Is the Life," which he wrote for Chris Kattan's "Bollywood Hero" series for the IFC cable channel, a song in keeping with his wife's conundrum, noting that "sometimes it's so hard -- sometimes it's nothing but struggle and strife/ This is the life."

She moved out of strict holiday mode long enough to touch on other thematically appropriate songs of her own, including "Save Me" -- "You look like a perfect fit/ For a girl in need of a tourniquet" -- and a new number from her forthcoming album "Charmer," due in January.

Then she was back to the heart of the matter with a happily grimacing reading of "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" and a smartly left-field version of Barry White's boudoir anthem "You're My First, My Last, My Everything," turned into a loopy spiritual with a sermon-like intro from Tompkins.

It went too far for its own good with a pas de deux between dancers outfitted as Joseph and Mary, shifting the evening's Charlie Brown mood suddenly into outrageous "South Park" overdrive. But if a little transgression can't be forgiven at this time of year, when can it be?

RELATED:

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Scott Weiland's holiday crooner concert: We were there

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Aimee Mann (top), and Nellie McKay (bottom) perform at the Wiltern Theater. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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