Double or Nothing
Joe’s Pub likely booked a perfectly delightful Valentine’s Day show. But the following night, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn took the stage. And that was an affair to remember.
Beneath the dimmed lights and above the illumined tables of the tony East Village boîte, the husband-and-wife singer-songwriters played a beguiling set. Dressed alike in dark turtlenecks and blue jeans, the pair focused on material from Mann’s recent Magnolia soundtrack, her self-released Bachelor No. 2, and Penn’s new MP4. They took turns in the spotlight, each accompanied by electric guitar, drums, and keyboards. While one sang, the other supplied backing vocals or tambourine jangles, or a bass line plucked on a shared blue-and-white Danelectro. Between songs, the intermittently funny L.A. comedian Andy Kindler supplied the requisite banter, pretending to elucidate the thoughts inside Penn’s head or introducing a Mann tune with a mock anecdote about the history of the guitar.
Mann hushed the crowd with her Oscar-nominated “Save Me,” while Penn let loose on the Dylanesque “Brave New World,” even as he momentarily forgot the words. Both impressed with their cogent lyrics—often about love, typically of the lost or longed-for variety—and captivating performances. Even at their quietest, it was impossible to look away. Mann’s voice segued from wistful to resounding in a note, while Penn knows just how to puncture his perfect-pop melodies with a mournful air. Even if they had to hire a comedian to do their patter, they exuded confidence, perhaps feeling they’ve finally put their industry woes behind them. “I’m an overdog,” Mann announced, “not an underdog anymore.”
For a final encore, each approached a mic, she clutching a tambourine, he a guitar. The opening chords of Penn’s late-’80s hit, “No Myth,” rang out, and the crowd gave a cry of pleasure and surprise as Mann stepped forward to sing the first verse, leaving Penn the second and the bridge. They duetted on the chorus, harmonies exquisite. If Ms. Mann and Mr. Penn were ever looking for anything, including someone to dance with, they seem to have found it. —Alexis Soloski
My Funny Valentine
I really had fun at your Valentine’s Day concert. I knew it was fate when I scored front-row seats. Of course, Ticketmaster failed to mention the VIP orchestra pit that kept some distance between us, so I couldn’t throw you roses with all those stupid girls in the way. And no one even threw you roses. I’m still pretty sure you saw me, though. I was wearing red pants and a red halter with pink hearts on it that I bought from Contempo Casuals just for the occasion. Do you remember now?
Anyway, I don’t think you’re like Prince at all. I mean you’re quite a bit taller, and you rap and everything. I really liked it when you freestyled onstage; you should have done more of that. You remember when that big bed came down on the stage when you were singing the nice song about your sister? You didn’t even mess up the sheets or anything. That was funny. You seemed a little tired, though. Is that why you sat down when you played the “Asshole” song with the chorus about doing anything to make a guy feel like an asshole? But anyway, you also played “Jackass” and I like that song a lot too even though I didn’t know why Odelay was supposed to be so great, probably because I didn’t like that two turntables song. But my sister says that people reacted the same way when Blondie did “Rapture.” I think you’re a much better rapper now. You know your new song where it goes “Shop at Old Navy!/You wish you was a lady!”? That’s the bomb! I don’t think you played that one but I’m not sure; I was too busy dancing around, trying to get your attention. Can you let me know so I don’t look dumb? The reason I don’t think you played it is that you were acting kinda shy. Not like when I saw you open for Dave Matthews and you went ballistic and did a split and nobody even paid attention.
So good luck with everything and don’t be sad. So only white people come to your concerts? That’s O.K. I’m sure it was the same way with the Beasties, and look at all the cred they have now. Maybe you should open for Run-DMC too.
Love, Carla Spartos
Putting on the Blitz
No wonder Marc Blitzstein is something of a hazy memory these days: Of his four musicals, two (Reuben Reuben and Juno) have the dubious distinction of being featured in the book Not Since Carrie—40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, while another (No for an Answer) never even made it to Broadway. Sadly, Blitzstein is now best known for his English adaptation of The Threepenny Opera and for a musical, The Cradle Will Rock, that’s more (in)famous for the circumstances surrounding its opening night than for its songs. Fortunately, a few hardy souls led by musical director Ted Sperling have undertaken to go “Beyond the Cradle,” as their show is titled, revealing Blitzstein’s astonishing versatility.
Blitzstein might have gotten a kick out of the mix of singers gathered at Joe’s Pub, as they embodied the coexistence between high and low arts his career was built on: a City Opera soprano (Lauren Flanigan), an alum of both Caroline in the City and Lincoln Center (Malcolm Gets), and two Broadway journeymen making the most of their moment in the spotlight (Victoria Clark and Brooks Ashnamskas). Clark, too often stuck with playing comic second bananas, got the opportunity to display dramatic flair in “Penny Under the Foot,” while Flanigan, having ditched her wholly unnecessary mike, delivered a powerhouse version of “Birdie’s Lament,” from Blitzstein’s opera Regina. Gets, a Tintin lookalike whose head bobbed merrily on top of his reed-thin body, easily switched from quiet pain to quasi-slapstick—a versatility that Ashnamskas, who stuck to one-note doofusness, didn’t quite achieve, even if he did play the doofus very well.
All four brought to vivid life the work of a musician who, far from his reputation as a didactic Kurt Weill clone, could be riotously funny (“A Modest Maid”) or achingly tender (“I Wish It So”), a composer who’d trained with Arnold Schoenberg but could write the most exquisite of melodies, a passionate leftist who saw the people under the social-struggle archetypes. At a time when Broadway is bereft of both heart and brain, “Beyond the Cradle” is more necessary than ever. —Elisabeth Vincentelli