Photography by Greg Chow
“Shall we try to do this without talking for 15 minutes first?”
These were the opening words from Ted Leo as he took the stage at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall opposite Aimee Mann. The stage setup was reminiscent of two fourth graders forced to sit on opposite ends of a classroom after chatting with each other too much. Leo and Mann left as much of the stage between them as possible, but this barrier failed to hide the charming chemistry that inspired them to join forces as The Both last year.
The two clearly have a deep friendship and mutual respect that perhaps showed most clearly when the normally uptempo and brash Leo accompanied Mann on her solo work. On Mann’s well-loved “Save Me”, he kicked out warbly solos and softly harmonized on the refrains, seemingly afraid his impact might blemish the fragility of the song. Leo’s work was also well represented, with Mann pulling bass duty for “Bottled in Cork” and the as-yet-unreleased “Lonsdale Avenue”.
The banter between the two was as much a part of the evening as the music, from Mann regaling the crowd with a story about the holy grail of graffiti she and Leo found in their dressing room at the Bottom of the Hill (a list of four new pussy rules*) to Leo describing his trip to Harbin Hot Springs, where he witnessed Watsu (an exercise where “an adult is cradled by another adult and swished around the water”).
The Both played every track off their self-titled debut album released earlier this year. You don’t need to call in Robert Langdon to decipher where the roots of each song took shape. “You Can’t Help Me Now” could easily be a B-side from Mann’s Lost in Space, while “Volunteers in America” carried over some of the Supertramp-esque synth and pep of her most recent solo record, Charmer. Leo’s influence was strongest on “The Gambler”, a track Mann claimed to have named in hope of recovering mislabeled royalties from Kenny Rogers. The song has a bite that pulls more strongly from Leo’s body of work, a kind of melodic menacing that Mann’s backing vocals reinforce with sweet malice.
Nothing stoked the embers of the crowd more than when Mann and Leo broke into the ‘Til Tuesday classic “Voices Carry”, with Leo stretching his range to match the refrain’s falsetto. The music is far more haunting when stripped of its synths and production. In the hands of The Both it was transformed from power ballad to lullaby. In essence, this is the brilliance of bringing these two musicians together: They are artists likely to be found on the same iPods, but they have measurably different approaches to their craft. When taken as a unit, however, they afford themselves the chance to reimagine their own work.
* New Pussy Rules
01. Never pull out
02. Never get out
03. Lock it down
Volunteers of America
The Inevitable Shove
Pay For It
You Can’t Help Me Now
Save Me (Aimee Mann song)
Lonsdale Avenue (Ted Leo song)
Bottled in Cork (Ted Leo song)
Goodbye Caroline (Aimee Mann song)
Voices Carry (‘Til Tuesday cover)
Honesty is No Excuse (Thin Lizzy cover)