On paper the pairing of Ted Leo and Aimee Mann doesn’t make much sense. He’s a timeless punk rocker and she’s a headstrong folky songwriter. The eternally young Mann, looking awesome in a miniskirt and Chuck Taylors, is known for her Magnolia soundtrack, her wistful songs pairing beautifully with the movie’s offbeat dreamlike charm. The gangly and charming Leo is known for blistering live performances, and in my book, for bashing himself in the forehead repeatedly with a microphone till he bled during a set at one of the early Pitchfork festivals. I half expected a Donnie & Marie style “I’m a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock & roll” duet during their set. Instead we got a set that was equal parts songs from the new record, songs from their individual back catalog and engaging banter, because as different as they seem, Mann and Leo really have fun together.
The pair first starting working together on Mann’s last headlining tour when Leo was her opening act and he began joining her during her set. An entire record came out of the collaboration, which isn’t as strong as either of their solo material, but it does showcase how surprisingly great they sound together. Mann rocks harder, while Leo is more melodic and thoughtful. “Milwaukee,” with its nonsense chorus about “a nucleus burning inside of itself,” is the catchiest of the bunch, and the even sillier “Volunteers of the America” sounds pretty. The highlights of the set were Mann’s “Save Me” Leo’s “Bottled in Cork,” and of course Till Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.” Mann claims she only plays her 80’s hit, which has definitely stood the test of time, to hear Leo sing falsetto backing vocals. For his part Leo didn’t seem to mind at all. They also really like to talk, the show would have been a lot shorter without their between song exchanges. Some of the banter may have been slightly calculated (the recounting of a green room graffiti list certainly had been told before), but that was likely from having tested these stories and found what worked best over the course of their short tour.
Opening act Nick Diamonds from the band Islands had the thankless job of opening the show for a chatty crowd. Seated center stage with a friend joining him on guitar and keyboards he failed to engage the crowd, even when Leo joined him on a Harry Nilsson song. It obviously hadn’t been pre-planned, and Leo had to crouch awkwardly to share Diamonds microphone. I enjoyed his short set, and was especially happy to hear the bouncy “Bones” from the first Islands record. He shouldn’t feel too bad about failing to charm the crowd, they also talked through much of the headliners’ set. Especially, surprisingly, upstairs in the VIP section which I was experiencing for the first time since a friend started working at the Metro. When I complained that VIPs talk a lot, he responded “You knew that.” Yeah, I guess I did, but it was still surprising.