The Both With Lemura Kessler Theater, Dallas Tuesday, August 12, 2014
To be completely honest, I have been an Aimee Mann fangirl since I first heard her work for the Magnolia soundtrack years ago. When the news broke last year that she was planning to join up with Ted Leo to form the Both, I was disappointed -- if only because I thought that it meant that she wouldn't be touring or putting out new solo material for the foreseeable future. After seeing Mann and Leo's performance at The Kessler Theater last night, I am happy to admit that I was completely wrong to feel that way.
To say that Mann and Leo are excellent musicians is an understatement. Mann is one of the best vocalists in music, and her unique timbre has only continued to get more interesting as she's gotten older. Leo's guitar playing, clearly influenced from his past in punkier projects, is remarkably tight. There was something going on last night with his guitar that required it be retuned after each song. At first, it was annoying, but ultimately it showed how dedicated he was to making sure that Dallas heard the best of the Both.
When these two artists come together on stage, it's really nothing short of magic. Even though this duo has only been making music together for a short time, the set was absolutely seamless. The chemistry that Mann and Leo have is evident the moment they take the stage, and there is no battling of the egos. Instead, there is a mutual respect in each of their eyes, like they know that they bring out the best in each other.
At this point in their respective careers, they are completely comfortable being themselves under the lights, meaning that they have no problem with acting like total dorks onstage. The chemistry between the two manifests itself once again when they start telling stories between the songs. Mann is known for her quirky sense of humor, so it wasn't surprising that there were plenty of humorous tour anecdotes and a thick sprinkle of snarky banter. Throughout the night, Mann pulled no punches with her bandmate, and teased Leo about his secret love of hobbits, his guitar tuning ineptitude and getting shunned by a cranky 70-year-old woman on the plane ride to Dallas.
As musicians, they also just seem to get each other, and that's something that doesn't come from practice. Given the disparate sounds of their previous work as solo artists, the fact that they can come together and harmonize and play so brilliantly is at least part of what makes them remarkable as a duo. The instrumentation and arrangements of their songs are certainly impressive, maybe some of the best in both of their careers, but the best of the Both is in the vocals. If Leo and Mann found each other serendipitously, it was the best kind of good luck.
I also realized about halfway through the set that along with being an incredibly skilled guitarist, Leo is an extremely underrated vocalist. As he played "Lonsdale Avenue," one of the two of his original tracks performed last night, I realized that it was unfair to say that Mann out-shined her cohort as a vocalist. They are, the Both of them, equally responsible for making this band great on all levels. Leo's unique contributions to the Both are largely what keeps this project from being a repetition of Mann's former work. With his influence, she's able to keep moving forward toward pop-rock that is widely appealing and relentlessly fun.
Because the Both has such a relatively limited body of work to pull from, the audience got the added bonus of hearing Mann's most famous song to date, "Save Me." For me, this was one of the most special moments of the evening. There is something so subtly sad about that song that seemed sort of healing. Maybe that had something to do with the tragic events across the country that have dominated the news and social media for the past few days. Leo's perfectly-placed harmonies didn't hurt, either.
Still, the Both played every track from their debut, and most sounded just as good live as they do on vinyl. "The Gambler," "Volunteers of America," and "No Sir" are particularly strong tracks, those rare kinds of songs you almost know the words to immediately after hearing them. It is clear that these two have created a sound that will endure, and likely only continue to get better.
As the set wound down and more time was spent telling stories and jokes, I only found myself wanting more music. "Milwaukee," the most popular song from the band's debut came near the end of the show, and the energy was palpable. People were clearly engaged in what the Both is doing musically, and hopefully that means we'll be hearing a lot more of them soon. As a dedicated Mann fan and recent Leo convert, I firmly believe that together, they are better.
Once the final track played and Leo headed backstage to "reapply his eyeliner," as Mann teased, the two took the stage once more to cover "Voices Carry," the popular one-hit-wonder from Mann's '80s new-wave project, 'Til Tuesday. This was also another particularly special moment in the evening, as it was nice to hear Mann taking music from her past and working with Leo to perform it in a fresh way. Besides, everybody loves that damn song.
If this is what the future of both Mann and Leo's music looks like, I don't think anyone is going to be disappointed. These two have only been working together since last year, and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.