Aimee Mann cracks jokes, flaunts craft, and keeps it acoustic at the Fitzgerald

Aimee Mann at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Aimee Mann at the Fitzgerald Theater. Steve Cohen

You don't expect a witty, grounded artist to release an album called Mental Illness, but Aimee Mann pulled it off last night at Minnesota Public Radio’s Fitzgerald Theater.

Make no mistake, this was a very public radio concert. Opener Jonathan Coulton has a day job as “musical sidekick” on WNYC’s Ask Me Another, and he was funny, self-deprecating, and chatty. “I’m standing in between you and an Aimee Mann show.” he joked.

Whether singing about the suburbs, Shop Vacs, glasses, IKEA or his wife’s random tattoo(s), Coulton pulled every funny observation back to the audience sitting in front of him. He knew who he was playing to, and the audience was in on the fun.

His latest album (the first in some years) is a sci-fi concept double album about artificial intelligence, internet culture, and the end of humanity. Oh, and it also comes with a graphic novel.

On a song about a “shitty internet troll,” Coulton broke a string on his guitar. Mann came to the rescue, and supplied him with one of her own; to the delight of the audience. He fretted out loud, “I hope I don’t break it,” bringing Mann back out stage left to glare menacingly.

Soon it was Mann’s turn. “I have a new album of sad, depressing, melancholy songs,” she said. “So, I am going to start with old, sad, depressing, melancholy songs.” Her set stretched back to 1993’s Whatever and up to this year’s Mental Illness.

“Little Bombs” from 2005’s Forgotten Arm was restrained yet buoyed by a nimble pulse. it was a perfect example of Mann’s set in general, which didn't offer jump-off-the-drum-riser rock and roll (if you were expecting that, well, I don’t really know what to say to you) but instead perfectly composed singer-songwriter pop.

“Patient Zero,” a new song, was tense and nervy, with moody keys playing along the fringes. 2002’s “The Moth” got a big cheer, and almost on cue with the song discussing the titular moth getting burned by flame, the backstage star lighting faded in. A nice touch. People noticed.

Mann switched guitars quite a bit, and during one such moment someone in the crowd wolf-whistled at her a couple of times. “That was even sadder than the last one,” she chided. After a particularly enthusiastic whistle, she shot back, “There you go.”

From the inescapable pop of Charmer’s “Labrador” back to the Mental Illness material, Mann's easy-going, matter-of-factly hilarious stage presence helped her songs go down easy despite the weightiness of the lyrics.

After welcoming the man she called “easy goin’ Jonny Coulton” back to the stage, Mann had a prolonged discussion with her opener (who co-wrote a couple songs on the new album) about his name. Laughing, she said, “Now, I can’t sing this goddamn song.”

Mental Illness’s “You Never Loved Me” is not as sad as its title suggests. Someone is left at the altar, but she dodged a bullet. “There is something about… No need for counseling. Just fuck you.” Mann said. “Hat’s off to you, asshole.”

The new song “Goose Snow Cone” sounded like a hit single from an alternate reality where the early 1970s took place after punk and new wave.

Mann said that every recent interviewer has referred to the opening lines of “Good for Me” as “quintessential Aimee Mann lyrics.” Thing is, she told us, Coulton wrote those lines. “Fuck that guy.” Mann joked about Coulton. For his part, he said he was consciously trying to “write an Aimee Mann song.”

While “Save Me” (from the Magnolia soundtrack) was a ghostly combination of lullaby and slow-moving panic attack, 2005’s “Going Through the Motions” was summer driving perfection with more spring in its step than the recorded version on The Forgotten Arm.

Finishing the set with the confident pop of 2008’s “Borrowing Time” and 1996’s “Long Shot,” Mann also took the time to reminisce about being on the Fitzgerald stage for the currently-on-hiatus NPR show Wits. In place of the chugging electric guitar on the recording of “Long Shot,” there were propulsive keys and the ringing dual acoustics to finish off the main set in grand fashion.

For the encore, Mann reached back again to 1999’s Magnolia soundtrack, and by extension 1968, for a starkly beautiful version of Harry Nilsson’s “One.”

Mann's performance was part comedy routine, part songwriting master class, and a reminder that every failure or regret is an opportunity to recognize our shared humanity.

4th of July
Little Bombs
Stuck in the Past
Patient Zero
The Moth
Humpty Dumpty
You Never Loved Me
Goose Snow Cone
Good for Me
Save Me
Going Through the Motions
Borrowing Time
Long Shot

Wise Up

The Crowd: Jonathan Coulton made enough fun of those of us in attendance (as well as himself) that I don’t have to.

Overheard in the Crowd: “That’s a nice guitar!” (Mann gave Coulton one of guitars after he broke a string).

Random Notebook Dump: I can’t remember the last show I have attended where there weren't any electric guitars.