Aimee Mann, Michael Penn Open Tour With Romance, Cynicism, Comedy

Husband-wife singer/songwriters trot out new songs and a stand-up comic.

SAN FRANCISCO — Some musicians like to let their songs do the

talking for them. Husband-wife singer/songwriters Aimee Mann and Michael

Penn, who opened their joint U.S. tour on Wednesday night, brought a

stand-up comic to do the job.

"I've never been too comfortable with the whole between-song-banter thing,"

Mann told the overflow crowd at Bimbo's 365 Club. "So tonight he's going

to do it for me."

She was talking about local comedian Patton Oswalt, who warmed up the

audience and whom Mann reintroduced shortly after she and her band —

including Penn on bass and backing vocals — took the stage. The two

singer/songwriters took turns leading the band during a nearly three-hour

set, singing about disappointment, sarcasm, cynicism and, as always,

romance.

Oswalt in some ways stole the show, intermittently providing lighthearted

commentary around the emotion-heavy songs he was bookending.

"Hi, I'm Aimee 'Golden Globe' Mann," he announced, referring to her Golden

Globe Award nomination for "Save Me" (RealAudio

excerpt), a song from her acclaimed soundtrack to the movie

"Magnolia" (Phil Collins won the award at Sunday's ceremony, for the

"Tarzan" song "You'll Be in My Heart"). Other soundtrack cuts included

the spare, quavering "Wise Up" and the somber "Deathly."

Bachelor #2 Songs Previewed

Mann, who has famously bounced among record labels since the breakup of

her new-wave band, 'Til Tuesday — which scored a 1985 pop hit with

"Voices Carry" — showcased songs from the soundtrack and from her

upcoming Bachelor #2, which she plans to release on her own label.

They were deceptively simple-sounding songs, about emotion, confusion,

change and growth.

Songs such as "You Could Make a Killing" (RealAudio

excerpt), from her 1996 solo album I'm With Stupid, and

the fragile ballad "Save Me" highlighted Mann's unconventional approach to both

interpersonal relationships and her career.

Sporting shoulder-length blond hair and dressed in black denim jeans and

jacket, Mann primarily played an acoustic guitar. Along with Penn, the

band included Buddy Judge on guitar, John Sands on drums and Patrick

Warren on keyboards, providing texture that varied from simple piano to

dreamy synth and warped Moog flourishes.

"We don't have the big bus to tour with the equipment we need," Mann said,

laughing, as she introduced a hip-hop-style drum loop for the bouncy pop song

"That's Just What You Are," another song from I'm With Stupid.

"Her voice seems so much stronger now," Jen Boyce, 32, of San Francisco,

said. "She still has that sort of vulnerability about her, but ... well,

it sounds like it's been a long 15 years."

In With The Old, In With The New

Penn stepped forward periodically, allowing Mann to fade back and harmonize.

He selected songs from throughout his 11-year career but highlighted

material from his new album, MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident),

which comes out Tuesday.

Though MP4 is a wall-of-sound-style pop album, Penn played stripped-down,

jangly versions of such tracks as "Whole Truth" and "Perfect Candidate,"

as well as the countryish "Bucket Brigade," giving each a psychedelic

tint.

Intertwining their voices, careers and lyrics with ease, Mann took the

microphone for Penn's signature hit "No Myth" (RealAudio

excerpt), singing the song's choruses while Penn chimed in on

every other verse.

"I'm mostly here to see Aimee Mann," Dominic Mah, 24, of Berkeley, said.

"I think it's cool that she and her husband are able to perform together.

They do sound good together, though his songs seem lighter and funnier

than hers."

Comedian Oswalt, meanwhile, jokingly translated Penn's unintelligible

stage patter, drawing loud laughs from the band for gibes about the singer's

penchant for sitting at home in his bean bag chair while listening to Van

Halen's 1984 album.

With Mann in the background, Penn, dressed in black, pin-striped pants

and a tight, black sweater, played a solo acoustic take of "Long Way Down

(Look What the Cat Drug In)," raising his voice slightly on the biting

refrain, "I got a feeling she's been sleeping with the whole wide world."

A Surprise Encore

He and Mann stood back and applauded as surprise guest Chris Isaak was

introduced during the encore. Providing a final moment of levity for the

evening, Isaak picked up the bass and plunked awkwardly through an opening

vamp.

"Oh, someone's just up here because he bought a new suit," Mann gibed.

"Aw, c'mon, Aimee ... I also bought all your albums," Isaak

deadpanned. "I got your picture taped up above my bed." As the audience

roared, he quickly turned to the spouse-bassist and added, "Oh ... yours,

too, Michael."

With the natty Isaak still fumbling around on Penn's bass, Mann led the band through a slow, funereal version of "Voices Carry," with

a droning, raga-like keyboard. With Mann standing in the spotlight and

a powerful team behind her, the vulnerability of 15 years ago seemed gone,

replaced by certainty and strength.