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Through a Snow Globe, Darkly

By Shawn Stone

The 1st Annual Aimee Mann Christmas Show

The Egg, Dec. 16

Aimee Mann made a Christmas album this year, One More Drifter in the Snow, and came to Albany last weekend to present her “first annual” holiday extravaganza. The stage was set with a Christmas tree and presents; the lights dimmed, the band took the stage, and soon the sound of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” filled the room.

It was really going to be Christmas with Aimee Mann.

Not that anyone thinks Aimee Mann shouldn’t love Christmas; it’s just that no one quite believes she enjoys it. Mann is known for composing, shall we say, less-than- optimistic music. Her last two nonholiday albums were packed with tunes about addiction; her only previous holiday tune was “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas.”

Mann made it clear she was representing the “spooky” side of the holiday; she joked about the depressing nature of both of their oeuvres with special guest Grant-Lee Phillips. Phillips suggested that “if your songs can’t . . .” and Mann finished his thought, “push them into the abyss?”

Ah, but the Mann fans in the house were there because they already loved Mann’s explorations of the abyss.

The show was presented in the nature of a revue. After Mann sang Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas” and her own “Calling on Mary” with the four-piece band, Phillips—looking dapper in a red velvet jacket—joined in for a sprightly “Winter Wonderland.” Phillips played some Grant Lee Buffalo songs solo, then Mann and company backed him for a few more numbers. The Mann-Phillips duet on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was hilarious, the highlight of the show.

Phillips should do voiceover work. He has an astonishing speaking voice.

Their banter, as noted above, was entertaining, too. When Phillips struggled to get his guitar in tune at one point, Mann deadpanned: “I never tuned a guitar in my life. I got a guy for that.”

The question of the evening, aside from how many actual holiday songs would be in the show, was: What were we—meaning Albany—going to get in the way of comedy? John C. Reilly was in the L.A. shows; Fred Armisen was in the New York and Richmond, Va., performances. The answer was: the Hanukkah Fairy.

A spotlight hit a tall comedienne in a pair of long underwear and a pink tutu at the back of hall. Microphone in one hand and bottle of beer in the other, the Hanukkah Fairy chastised, in her boozy way, Mann and company for not playing any Hanukkah songs. When pressed, the Hanukkah Fairy explained that Hanukkah was when the Maccabees (Jews) defeated the French. Under Napoleon. In the 1950s. It was amusing. Later, the Hanukkah Fairy returned to hand out gifts to the audience. (“Open the fucking present,” she chided one tardy gent.) Spotting a young, preteen lad at the end of a row, she asked, “ ’Til Tuesday fan?”

Mann interjected, “Thanks, Hanukkah Fairy.”

Things kept moving along. Mann played a few songs in a trio format with pianist Jamie Edwards and bassist Paul Bryan, including the haunting “Lost in Space” and Harry Nilsson’s “One.” Another guest, Woodstock-based singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata, showed off her amazing voice on three songs. Mann, with the full band, rocked out on the Michael Penn-Jon Brion tune “Christmastime,” and pleased the faithful with “Wise Up” and “Way Back When.”

The evening ended with everyone on stage for the Darlene Love chestnut “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Even the Hanukkah Fairy, who threw sparkly stuff at each musician’s head, approved.

Guitar Heroine

Kaki King

Red Square, Dec. 12

Kaki King’s appearance at Red Square last week brought out an impressively assorted fanbase for a solo-guitar ace. Along with the usual middle-aged male guitar mavens were smitten fanboys who deigned to leave their basement computers for a spell, along with a strong contingent of intrigued Sapphic admirers. Yes, Kaki King is cute as well as jaw-droppingly talented, which bodes well for the future success of her music career. Kudos to Red Square for letting Albany have a peek at King’s genius before she gets too big for this town.

King opened the show with the pretty yet brooding “Can the Gwot Save Us?,” a showcase for lap-steel licks that were simultaneously country, bluesy and Hawaiian. After the unaccompanied intro, King triggered a funky drum loop that left her free to cascade glistening solos overtop. “Goby,” one of many songs where King explores open modal tunings, had a Brazilian flair, while on “Yellowcake,” King sang the mystical-sounding maxim, “Open yourself/You will become the light you see.”

King is one of those rare players who plays as though her instrument is another part of her being. “Playing With Pink Noise” was the tour de force, with King overhauling the idea of what an acoustic guitar can do. She slapped the back and top of the guitar’s body for propulsive percussion, played with her left hand overtop of the fretboard to barrel out furious bass lines, and played high melodies with her right fingers a la Stanley Jordan—all at the same time. On “First Brain,” King played entrancing and sparse rhythm while flugelhornist Dan Brantigan made sounds that resembled both the squawks of seagulls and the plaintive wail of the human voice.

King showed where her pop sympathies lie with her choice of covers, with the forlorn weepers “Angeles” (written by Elliott Smith) and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” by the Smiths. King’s vocals were strongest on these, probably because she’s been singing them in her bedroom since she was a kid.

Another of King’s strengths as a performing artist is the sense of theme and pacing during her 90-minute set. Always at ease with the audience, and downright conversational at times, she has an endearing personality that sets us up for the wallops of power and emotion that her guitar playing is saturated with. Such an amalgam of talent, ambition and humor was refreshing to behold, and made for one of the best shows of the year.

Opener Bora Yoon, an experimental violinist and singer, made intriguing and evocative music that made like Andrew Bird and Laurie Anderson playing with Tibetan monks at the foothills of the Himalayas. While her singing teetered on the edge of shrill Joan Baez-ness from time to time, one couldn’t help but admire her originality.

—Mike Hotter

Thinking Man’s Blues

Chris Smither

Caffe Lena, Dec. 17

“I don’t think for pleasure, it’s just hard not to do/My thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue,” sang Chris Smither in his easygoing, husky baritone to a sold-out house at Caffe Lena on Sunday night. The tall, lean 62-year-old New Orleans-born singer-songwriter clearly was too cerebral to remain within the fold of the country blues that was his first musical love. There was more to life than the whiskey, gambling, and hard-hearted women that bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and his other early influences moaned about on their records, so he began writing his own material around 1970. In 1972 Bonnie Raitt recorded his slow blues “Love Me Like a Man,” and Smither’s star was rising.

Then it collided with the bottle. From the early 1970s until 1985, he drank heavily, and his creative life got paralyzed. But he shook off his demons after a dozen lost years, restarted his career, and has been racking up kudos for his smart songwriting and snappy fingerstyle guitar work ever since.

Asked in an impromptu interview before his absorbing show what his favorite themes to write about were, Smither, attired in a black jeans and a black blazer, replied, “The big stuff—love, hate, death, life.” He explained that with the exception of his humorous, topical numbers, his lyrics gravitated toward the philosophical.

That was evident from the beginning of his two-set performance. Using familiar blues and folk chord progressions as a backdrop, Smither’s songs, many drawn from his 12th and latest CD, Leave the Light On, plumbed the Great Questions, albeit with a merciful levity. The opener, “Train Home,” a minor-key ditty played with his usual alternating bass fingerpicking over his incessant foot tapping, began with “Take a look inside/I got nothing left to hide,” and, several more soul-searching verses later, finished with “We’re all waiting on that train to take us home.”

About love, that eternal vexation of idiots and savants alike, Smither sang in his “Lola” that “Everybody says she’s a hell of a kid/But she ain’t no kid when she’s cutting me apart/That’s OK, I told her from the start/Don’t stop sweetie till you get my heart.”

Before the show, he commented that what he saw as the conservative excesses of the Bush administration had spurred him to write political songs for the first time. One of these, “Origin of Species,” a satirical look at the religious right’s assault on the theory of evolution, drew laughter when he got to a line claiming that God “just sits back in the shade while everyone gets laid/Now that’s what I call intelligent design.”

Smither also offered some tasty covers, included a 6/8-time reworking of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” Jesse Winchester’s “Thanks to You,” and Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man.” But the high point of the evening was his revved-up, showpiece version of the tune he says still pays his bills, “Love Me Like a Man,” here performed in its original form as “I Can Love You Like a Man.”

The evening’s only shortcoming was that too many of his songs go at the same tempo and with the same style of guitar accompaniment, which made the performance somewhat monochromatic. But that’s only a small complaint when weighed against Smither’s wicked picking and insightful lyrics.

—Glenn Weiser


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