On Monday night, Aimee Mann brought her first Christmas tour in three years to the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, for the first of two sold-out shows. With her was Ted Leo, her bandmate in the Both, along with a small slate of guests including the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, humorist John Hodgman, and musician and comedian Jon Wurster. The night was framed, unusually for a Christmas show, by the concept of Mann and Leo as a pair of mystery-solving detectives who also just happen to be musicians. When the band’s “Backstage Santa” is murdered (“exsanguinated!” declared Wurster in a morbid moment that may have been improv, as it appeared to catch even Mann off-guard), the tension between needing to play the show and needing to solve the mystery serves as a recurring theme. Between that and Hodgman spending nearly the entire show “possessed by the spirit of Ayn Rand,” the troupe served up a surreal variety act which, even if it didn’t always make the most sense, was entertaining.
The set was, of course, heavy on holiday songs, with Mann and Leo performing everything from a cover of Status Quo’s “It’s Christmas Time” to classics such as “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” In between, Hoffs joined them to perform a seasonal, if not holiday-themed, version of the Bangles’ popular cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and used their backing band to perform her own version of the less seasonable “Eternal Flame.” “Walk Like an Egyptian” was turned into a Hanukkah story with the chorus replaced by the dreidel acronym “Nes Gadol Hayan Sham.” Meanwhile, Hodgman presented the audience with “Ayn Rand’s Gift Guide 2014″ — Rand’s suggestions including fudge, a subscription to Cat Fancy (“a cat cares for no other happiness than its own”), a lawn ornament (“a golden dollar sign”), and “Ayn Rand in a box” (with a promise she “will jump out of the box and scare children”). He even took his own musical turn, with a performance of what he called Rand’s favorite Christmas song, “Santa Baby” (“the best parts of the season — selfishness and sexual innuendo”) on the ukulele.
Toward the end of the show, Mann and Leo left behind the holiday for a bit to perform a few of their non-holiday songs — “No Sir” and “Volunteers of America” from the Both, as well as Leo’s “Bottled in Cork” and Mann’s “Save Me.” Finally, the pair decided to get serious about solving the murder, using their version of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to torment a confession out of their guests. Who drained all of the blood from Backstage Santa? You’ll have to go to the show to find out.