Aimee Mann, Ted Leo Collaboration The Both Brings Pop Hooks and Laughs: Concert Review

Craig Rosen
The seasoned singer-songwriters overcome technical problems with humor and hook-filled pop gems that might have been hits in another era.

Nagging technical problems can be a musician's worst nightmare, capable of derailing an entire performance. For Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, known collectively as the Both, such hiccups are merely ammunition for more jokes — sp they proved early on in their hour-and-40-minute set Saturday at the El Rey, which was part-concert, part stand-up routine.

Actually, the jokes started even before the Both hit the stage. Leo, disguised as "the ghost of the El Rey" in makeup and a long grey wig, bum-rushed the opening set by Nick Diamonds of Islands. He joked that he was a little upset because his pals Dracula and Frankenstein failed to answer his texts on Friday the 13th about a get together at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. After quoting a few lines from the "Monster Mash," he broke into a parody of Mann's best-known tune, 'Til Tuesday's 1985 hit "Voices Carry," which he transformed into "Voice is Scary." It was good for a few laughs and just a hint at what was to come.

When Mann and Leo took the stage, backed by drummer Matt Mayhall, Leo noticed static coming out of his guitar, but with humor they soldiered on. They opened, not with one of their own songs, but "Shotgun Fishin'," a parody of Island's "Shotgun Vision," which Diamonds had closed his set with, following Leo's interruption.

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From there, the duo dove into songs from their self-titled debut album, released earlier this year. Over the years, Mann and Leo have racked up an impressive catalog of work, but have mostly flown below the mainstream radar. In fact, Leo's never had a legit hit, although he did top Billboard's Heatseeker's new artist chart back in 2007. Mann scored early in her career with "Voices Carry," and she's topped the Independent Albums chart a few times. Her other notable mainstream career highlight was losing the Oscar to Phil Collins, when her song "Save Me" from the 1999 film Magnolia, was beat by "You'll Be in My Heart" from Tarzan.

With minimal exposure outside of public and Triple-A radio stations, the Both are more or less singing to the faithful, but those in the know were delivered a treat at the El Rey. Between the jokes, the duo knocked out melodic should-have-been-hits from another era. They're not edgy enough for hipsters and don't have the high-gloss production and dumbed-down lyrics for today's top 40. Instead, they play smart pop, with melodies and choruses that hook into your brain.

Although it's a collaboration, Mann and Leo each have their distinctive styles, so it was fairly easy to figure out who was the chief writer of many of their songs, beginning with "The Gambler" early in the set. When Leo sang his verses, with phrasing nearly identical to his female foil, he sounded like a male version of Mann. And the pure-pop rush of "Volunteers of America" had Leo's stamp on it, but was nicely rounded out with Mann's vocals.

On the "Inevitable Shove," Mann and Mayhall locked into a buoyant groove, as she and Leo harmonized sweetly, but Leo's guitar was still causing a distraction. Finally, Mann suggested a solution. She asked a friend to text her husband, musician Michael Penn, at home and ask him to bring her electric guitar to the venue. "Tell him I'll pay him $100 and thank him for coming to my show," Mann joked.

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With the guitar in transit, they carried on, mixing a few of their solo songs along the way. Mann's first pick, "Save Me," was preceded by a hilarious recounting of the pair performing the song at last year's Liberty Medal Ceremony, honoring Hillary Clinton. Mann joked it was a strange choice, since it wasn't exactly "She's a Jolly Good Fellow," but added she later heard Clinton was swaying to the song as it was played and demonstrated her hip sway. Of course, Leo couldn't let that go without comment, noting that a Hillary Clinton hip sway wouldn't be quite so "Axl Rose-ish." Mann agreed, conceding that Clinton was wearing one of her trademark pantsuits. They both also joked about meeting Jeb Bush, following the performance that night, in a backstage holding pen. When the laughs subsided, Mann performed the heart-wrenching song — beginning with the unforgettable couplet, "You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet" — on acoustic, with no drums and Leo adding tasteful guitar flourishes.

Another highlight was the Both track "Hummingbird."  With its building sing-song verses, it recalled XTC's "Dear God" and the Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," but its environmental concerns were here and now.

Eventually, Mann's spare guitar made it to the stage, delivered by the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs. Turned out the problem was with the cord, not the guitar and then Leo spent a lot of time tuning. The jokes became less frequent, but the duo ratcheted up the energy with Leo throwing in biting guitar solos at the end of "Milwaukee" and Mann's "Goodbye Caroline." His second solo spin, "Bottled in Cork" sounded like a lost Squeeze classic.

For an encore, Mann wheeled out "Voices Carry," which she introduced as "a song I wrote a very long time ago," which may be true, but it didn't seem dated. In the case of Mann and Leo — solo and as the Both — they proved to be two veteran voices that do indeed still carry.

Set List:

The Gambler
Volunteers of America
No Sir
The Inevitable Shove
Pay For It
You Can't Help Me Now
Save Me
Lonsdale Avenue
Bedtime Stories
The Prisoner
Goodbye Caroline
Bottled in Cork


Voices Carry
Honesty Is No Excuse

Twitter: @craigrosen