TVD Live: The Aimee Mann & Ted Leo Christmas Show at the Birchmere, 12/14

Like a gauzy, deadpan version of an old holiday TV special, the Aimee Mann & Ted Leo Christmas show that landed at the Birchmere in Alexandria Monday had all the traditional elements: well-worn songs, corny patter, seasonal costumes, and guest stars.

And in addition to original songs about the Yuletide, they wrestled old hits into holiday form, even if it relied on more corny humor.

Mann has been doing this kind of thing for several years, since she released her own decent, though dour, holiday release One More Drifter in the Snow in 2006. But since joining up with Leo for their thoroughly agreeable side project The Both, they’ve done it twice. And by now, they know how to play off one another in planned skits and amusing offhand remarks, just as well as their vocals and musical sensibilities match.

They’d be a good couple to host a weekly, new century Sonny and Cher show if anybody was so inclined. Bill Murray’s terrific Netflix Christmas special may have reminded viewers or introduced others to the core variety show pleasures of music and humor, mixed with a modern-day knowingness. Mann, a veteran guest star on Portlandia, even produced her own funny reel of her trying to attract celebrities to her L.A. holiday show that’s pretty good.

The 2015 features a rarely-touring name from Mann’s era, Liz Phair, still a spitfire in a flirty dress, and two less well-known names, funny folkie Jonathan Coulton and brash John Roderick of the Seattle band The Long Winters. That meant a lot of people walking on, doing a song, walking off (down that long Birchmere stage walkway), only to return later to help on a duet or to do a solo song.

Though there was a part where Mann wore the old man costume of the departing year 2015 to Leo’s baby 2016 for “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” a more continuing story in the show was Leo’s campaign to become the North Pole’s new Santa. Because of term limits up there, you see, Kris Kringle was out. Leo also happened to mention that he’s Frosty the Snowman (owing to the “magic in that old silk hat they found”) as Mann reveals she was briefly Mrs. Claus.

That makes things uncomfortable when Santa himself comes out and reveals his own secret. That they end with a song more associated with Easter, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” might give you a hint at that particular twist.

Mostly, it’s about music though, and in addition to a new Mann/Leo composition for the season, “It’s a Gift,” and opened with one they wrote last year, “There’s Nothing Left to Do (”Let’s Make This Christmas Blue),” and swung through such staples as “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Her version of the latter was fairly straightforward; similarly, Leo did a song that he said reduced his father to tears each year, Ed Ames’ absurd 1967 “The Ballad of the Christmas Donkey”).

Phair wrote a pretty good Christmas song last year in “Ho Ho Ho” and did it. Coulton’s seasonal song recalled his holiday the year his parents divorced, “Christmas is Interesting,” whose chorus continues, “like a knife in your heart.” His song with Roderick, “The Week Between,” considered that least written about part of the holidays, the days between Christmas and New Year’s.

But other songs were sort of meant to adhere to the theme. Phair’s “Supernova” could be considered an exploding star of Bethlehem. Coulton’s “2600,” about an Atari system, was introduced as the favorite toy he ever received under the tree.

Other favorites just got a slight rewrite, as when Mann’s big ’Til Tuesday anthem “Voices Carry” became a song about introducing a new stepdad in the holidays (“This is Gary”), and the point of Phair’s “Why Can’t I?” became “wreath” instead of “leave.” Which is to say, she put a wreath on everything.

Trying to give everyone a moment to play one of their own songs in addition to a holiday one was generous and diplomatic. But it seemed wasteful to spend time listening to Roderick’s “Same Song” when there were so many songs one would want to hear from headliners Mann or Leo.

Mann especially had a lot of Christmas songs she could have done from her album, but she only chose one original from it, “Calling on Mary.” Otherwise, she sang “Save Me,” the Oscar-nominated song from Magnolia with which she will forever be associated, and Leo did the drinking song “A Bottle of Buckie.” And there was just one selection from The Both LP, “No Sir. Throughout, Leo seemed the most underused, and far removed from the fast, melodic post punk he’s been doing most of his career. Still, he cut a mean figure in a Frosty suit.

The prevailing joke of the evening was that there is such an underlying sadness to not only the songs they write but particularly the way Mann mournfully (but beautifully) sings them. What’s been the substance of her career is not normally the soundtrack for the season of joy.

Indeed, her approach emphasizes that any pre-existing feelings of loss or loneliness are only amplified amid the tinsel. Therefore, a perfect encore was provided in that pop theme that underscores the season while delivering an underlying sadness, “Christmastime is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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