Anyone who attended Aimee Mann’s traveling Christmas show expecting the usual holiday fare—chestnuts roasting, sleigh bells ringing, that sort of thing—might have been taken aback by the first song, a tune of hers called “Jacob Marley’s Chain”: “I’d rather just go on to hell/Where there’s a snowball’s chance that the personnel/Might help to carry Jacob Marley’s chain,” Mann intoned, the minor key melody and existential weight of the song signaling that this was not going to be a holly-jolly affair.
Mann acknowledged the irony straight away when she spoke to the crowd at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “Usually, I’m a hater,” she said, wryly overstating her relentlessly melancholic nature. But then she confessed that Christmas was in fact her favorite holiday, and she went on to lead the audience through a variety-style show that celebrated the season in its own bittersweet way, including a reading of “The Christmas Song” complete with chestnuts. Mann, it turns out, mines the holiday for all its pathos, making her peace with it by exploring the other side of the glitter.
She turned “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” into a slow-smoking ballad, the languid pace giving her room to embellish the melody like a jazz singer. Of course, she played “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas” from The Forgotten Arm, its sad-junkie lyrics forever at odds with its incredibly catchy hook. And although she departed from the holiday theme to deliver several songs from her gem-packed Magnolia soundtrack, their wistful nature fit the night’s mood perfectly.
Mann performed a few songs at a time, and in between these mini-sets came the variety part of the show, a weird mix of film, comedy, and better-than-average talent show. New York smartypants songwriter Nellie McKay was a strange sprite in a pink, girly-girl dress and sparkling gold shoes who had crowd members exchanging is-she-serious glances, especially on her “Christmas Dirge,” which pleaded, “Please don’t chop down another Christmas tree,” and called such behavior a “fetish of the flesh” before turning into a lost-love lament. Take her seriously at your peril.
Singer-songwriter Adam Levy of the Minneapolis band the Honeydogs, whose music Mann has championed, contributed an inspired version of “Snow,” a Harry Nilsson song popularized by Randy Newman. Paul F. Tompkins of the Daily Show delivered just-funny-enough monologues and a Grinch cameo, and young comic Morgan Murphy took a hilarious turn as a beer-swilling “Hanukkah Fairy.” Finally, Mann showed clever film shorts in which she approached Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and other Hollywood friends about appearing in her show, only to be shot down repeatedly.
It was an unusual hodgepodge, to say the least, but that’s what a variety show is all about, and somehow it worked, the hostess holding it all together with her casual, lanky grace and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. She called it a “difficult Christmas experience,” but it wasn’t difficult at all. That part is yet to come.