By Hollister Dixon
Two summers ago, I saw The Both – comprised of Aimee Mann and Ted Leo – at Project Pabst here in Portland. Aside from being phenomenal musicians and songwriters on their own, their combined forces may not be totally groundbreaking, but feel warm, comfortable, and an absolute treat to listen to. But, this is only half of what makes the duo work: anyone who has had the opportunity to see Leo and Mann perform knows that they’re masters at witty stage banter, effortlessly filling the downtime between songs with jovial chatter – with each other, with the crowd, with anyone. During that particular show, during a long-winded (but still thoroughly enjoyable) rant wherein Leo revealed himself as a massive Tolkien nerd, I found myself thinking that, if these two ever wanted to just put down their instruments and put on a solid hour of crowd-work based comedy, I’d gleefully be there with bells on.
In this respect, Mann and Leo’s evening at Revolution Hall as part of Bridgetown Comedy Festival almost seems too
fitting. To fill out the bill, they enlisted Ohio comedian Rhea Butcher
(we’ll get to the Ohio part later), Venture Bros.
star James Urbaniak
, and (and this an absolute selling point for me) Long Winters
frontman John Roderick
Full disclosure: I arrived a few minutes late to the evening, arriving just in time for a lesson in how to fold the state flag of Ohio courtesy of Rhea Butcher, as well as a long list of famous Ohio natives (Jeffrey Dahmer! Rob Lowe! Devo!) and a dissection of the joys and sorrows that come with being an only child (Butcher’s top three board games not meant for only children: 3) Hungry Hungry Hippos 2) Twister 1) Don’t Wake Daddy! (“Because he’s gone. That’s a two-in-one joke for you!”)
A love of flags (otherwise known as vexillology – thank you, Roman Mars) was a constant throughout all three of the night’s guests. I’m not sure exactly how much of John Roderick’s flag knowledge is true or not, but it was hard to care after he arrived onstage with a green duffle bag full of them, spouting facts about the histories of each of them. James Urbaniak, true to form supplemented his inability to perform a cover of “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday by creating a unity flag for Leo & Mann that was actually just a Nazi flag. The reaction of Mann & Leo actually proved to be one of the best single moments of the show, solely because it was hard to really tell if this was planned mock outrage, or true, pure, honest-to-god revulsion that Urbaniak would use his bit to just spend a couple minutes drawing a swastika in front of a packed Portland crowd.
In between these moments, of course, there was music. We got a grab bag from the catalogs of both members (my memory on the Mann songs played is incredibly hazy, but we got two bottle-themed Pharmacists tracks: “Bottle of Buckie” from Living With the Living and “Bottled in Cork” [!!!] from The Brutalist Bricks), as well as a handful of both new (!) and old Both songs. And, of course, covers. The duo joined Roderick in a lovely rendition of “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” and returned for the encore to play Neil Young’s “Ohio” and – you guessed it – “Voices Carry”. On top of all of that, we even got one lovely Long Winters song: “Clouds,” a personal favorite, from the criminally underrated Putting the Days to Bed. I selfishly would have preferred “Ultimatum” from the same album, or “The Commander Thinks Aloud” from that song’s accompanying EP, but considering the dormant nature of Long Winters (Days, the last Long Winters release, turns 10 next month!), I just can’t find it in me to complain about getting to hear any of their music live.
In the end, though, it’s always hard to know if an almost variety show-like evening will work as well in practice as it does in theory. Stage presence and the quality of stage banter when you’re performing don’t always mean that you’re going to be a very good comedian. Luckily for everyone at Revolution Hall, this show was headed by two people with almost superhuman chemistry, so even if we might have gotten a more fulfilling show from Mann & Leo if it had been a more traditional format, I can’t find any reason to complain about the often hysterical, musically satisfying, and wonderfully unique night from two fantastic performers.