Copyright 2000 San Francisco Examiner

The San Francisco Examiner

Wednesday, January 26, 2000


LENGTH: 855 words


HEADLINE: Married to their Music



Married to their music

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn kick off national tour with a show at Bimbo's


EVEN before Chris Isaak came on stage for the final song, it had already been the most stellar evening of pop music The City had seen in a while.

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, who individually had forged critically acclaimed singer-songwriter careers, performed together Tuesday night at Bimbo's -- the sold-out opening night of a national tour. They played by themselves, together as one, and singing backup for each other. As they performed, they beamed at each other frequently: They are also husband and wife.

Penn, a brother of local boy Sean, is considered one of the best songwriters of his generation, a superlative lyricist and Beatles acolyte who scored Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," in addition to putting out three albums of his own -- most recently, the transcendent 1997 "Resigned." He has a brand-new one due out Feb. 1: "MP4/Days Since a Lost Time Accident."

And Mann, whose feistily independent pop music career began with the group 'Til Tuesday and continued with her as a solo artist, is experiencing a major breakthrough with a recent Golden Globe nomination for her original score for "Magnolia," also directed by Anderson. She is an odds-on favorite for an Oscar nod. And she, too, has a new CD emerging: "Bachelor No. 2."

Together, they are Hollywood's (the uber-cool West Hollywood, that is) hottest couple. And now, they're touring -- taking on the road a show developed during a long weekly stint at the Largo nightclub in L.A. It's as unusual as they are -- more of a revue than a straight concert. That was due in large part to the fact that they had an emcee, comedian Patton Oswalt, who turned what could have been a staid event into a three-ring circus.

"I've never been comfortable with banter so I'm leaving it to Patton," said the willowy Mann. Oswalt saw his series of opportunities and stepped up to the plate.

"Hi, I'm Aimee Mann. Are you ready to RAWK?" he asked the guffawing crowd. Then, as she watched with some trepidation, he continued: "My brilliant, personal songs apparently aren't as good as Phil Collins' cartoon monkey songs," referring to the song "You'll Be in My Heart" from the film "Tarzan," which beat out Mann to win the Golden Globe.

Oswalt was even more hilarious working with Penn, who showed he has the same talent for drama passed to his brothers Sean and Chris by their actor parents. An ongoing bit had Penn begin to introduce a song, and then Oswalt would take over, giving voice to Penn's supposedly inner thoughts. "Jeez, Michael," he lectured himself. "Get a grip! Just get through this tour and then you can play Nintendo all day."

The evening at times teetered on a Fellini film's sense of the absurd, but it was still enormously entertaining, even when Oswalt went on a bit long.

Mann began the nearly two-hour set with three songs from her 1996 album "I'm With Stupid": "It's Not Safe," "You Could Make a Killing" and "Choice in the Matter." Her ethereal soprano was strong and confident, even with minimal back-up support. Penn emerged to sing backup on "Choice in the Matter," and then Mann ceded the stage to her husband.

He began with a tender, heartbreaking rendition of "Out of My Hands" from "Resigned," his oddly textured baritone rich and elegant. "Long Way Down" from 1992's star-making "Free-For-All" was full of passion. And "Me Around," the ode to a crashing relationship, was hilariously bleak.

He joined Mann for her anguished "Save Me" from the soundtrack album, with its stunning opener "You look like/ a perfect fit/ for a girl in need/ of a tourniquet." Mann introduced a brand-new song called "Ghost World" based on her love of the comic book series, which was glorious. "Deathly" was as haunting as "Wise Up" was angry.

This was a no-frills show; although the musicianship was uniformly excellent, there were a few rough spots -- like when Mann had to bark out orders to technicians to put on (and then take off) drum loops for two songs. But the rapt audience didn't care; it only made them feel more like they were sitting in Penn and Mann's living room listening to them play.

Penn picked it up again, with an earnest version of "Try" from "Resigned," which he followed with "High Time," the first of several songs from his as-yet-unreleased new CD. Most effective was "Whole Truth," also from "MP4," which found Mann and lead guitarist Buddy Judge trading lofty harmonies.

By the time the audience was beginning to get sated with superb songs, they were snapped back to attention when The City's own Chris Isaak climbed on stage, proclaiming that he'd always wanted to play the bass, and proceeded to do so on Mann's first hit -- 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry."

It was a fine way to finish an oddball evening, where personality met songwriting chops in perfect balance.