For years, Aimee Mann's sweet voice and her dark and brilliant lyrics have obscured the opportunities for strong electric guitar play in her music. On Tuesday night at Avalon, those opportunities fully flowered under the fingers of sideman Julian Coryell.
From a thrilling, reverberating, show-ending solo on "Long Shot" that was not deterred by his breaking a string to the subtle slide atmosphere he created for "Voices Carry," the 'Til Tuesday tune that Mann selected for her second encore, Coryell was the story of the evening.
It was an evening that needed a second story because Mann was not in fine voice. This was evident from her first warble, and she acknowledged as much after just a few bars, when she stopped and asked if she could "apologize right from the beginning."
Mann said that she had a cold, and that she had hoped she could hide it at least for a while. But she failed in that mission: She consistently sang in a narrower range than usual, opting out of the high notes on "Calling It Quits" and "Amateur," among others.
This is not to say her concert was unsuccessful. Her song choices went all the way back to "Whatever" and spanned her solo career. She also offered "Going Through the Motions," which she said would be on her next album. She has begun to record the disc and expects to release it next year.
If anything, her subpar voice let other talents shine brighter, such as her knack for entertaining between songs, which she exploited during her "Acoustic Vaudeville" tours of a few years ago. On Tuesday night, she revealed that she has taken up boxing and said that she knows of several other musicians - including Chris Isaak, Rickie Lee Jones ("I'm staying away from her"), and Bob Dylan ("He's, what, 20 years older? I like my chances") - who've done the same.
She imagined a tour of pugilists in which, between sets, they could go a few rounds.
Mann also chooses her collaborators well. There was Coryell, who displayed a strong, clear voice both while backing Mann and in a solo opening set that drew some interest from the gathering throng. Drummer John Sands was energetic and inventive; during "Save Me," he used a jingle stick in one hand and a mallet in the other, striking with its soft and hard ends as the need arose. He seemed quite happy doing it.
If so, it was an emotion surely shared by many fans of Mann, even on an off night.