by Benjamin Pomerance
Review of Nellie McKay in FlynnSpace on Friday, April 2. Pomerance also interviews McKay in this week’s edition of Lake Champlain Weekly.
About halfway through her second set at a sold-out FlynnSpace, Nellie McKay forgot the lyrics to her own song. Modulating to a new key during her wistful number “Politan,” the 31-year-old singer-songwriter suddenly lost her own words. “Oh, boy,” she laughed. Then she kept right on playing, vamping underneath a commentary that began with a mock-pompous dissertation about transposing to the relative fifth, which merged into a discussion about accompanying tenors, which led to the first of several jokes about life in Vermont. Eventually, she returned to the song, this time singing it through to a successful conclusion.
The sequence was all so smooth, so disheveled but yet so beautiful, that you almost had to wonder if the whole thing was planned. Most likely, it wasn’t. McKay seemed as surprised as anyone when she opened her mouth and the words didn’t come out. Given her work as a Broadway actress, including a turn as the female lead in an award-winning production of The Threepenny Opera, it makes sense that she knows a thing or two about well-timed improvisation. Still, it left you wondering.
And that was the theme for the evening, really: never knowing precisely where you stood, but enjoying it all the while. It has become cliché for reviewers to claim, in a knowing tone, that a particular performer is impossible to categorize. Yet McKay leaves no other choice. One minute, she’s Doris Day, with a high-voltage smile and a throwback style and a voice smooth as satin, seemingly born for singing 1930s and ‘40s standards. The next minute, she’s punching out punishing rhymes that skewer everything from high school bullies to rampant commercialism to men. One moment, she’s the classic cabaret performer, bantering with the crowd. A few moments later, though, it’s as if she’s gone to a faraway place, light-years apart and untouchable.
What is consistent, though, is her musicianship. Accompanying herself on the piano for some numbers, and the ukulele for others, she seemed at home with both instruments. The ukulele particularly suited her voice, underlying the hushed, almost haunting, just-behind-the-beat singing that becomes so effective in an intimate venue. Her show-opening rendition of “Moon River” — sung in Portuguese — was one of the highlights of the entire night. Andy Williams made it a crooning ballad. McKay turned it into a lullaby.
Other classics followed, from Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson’s “Did I Remember?” from the 1936 film Suzy to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “A Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific. A self-confessed film junkie since her adolescent years, McKay’s passion for these older works — and the stars who sang them — is obvious. Yet she’s not wedded to the earlier interpretations. Her driving, largely improvisational accompaniment to “A Wonderful Guy” proved that she’s happy putting her own stamp on these warhorses. At times, those stamps were surprisingly bold. Still, her audacity was refreshing.
The softness of McKay’s voice on these familiar tunes also proved to be the setup for a knockout blow. When she abruptly launched into her original creation “Inner Peace,” her first heavy hitter of the show, the contrast was palpable. She doesn’t do it often, but McKay knows how to belt, spitting out words with piercing enunciation.
The words themselves aren’t particularly comforting, nor are they meant to be. Even before she launched her music career, which began after she dropped out of the Manhattan School of Music and cut her debut album at age 19, McKay was an activist, speaking out about animal rights and environmental causes and progressive feminist ideals. Many of her songs now emphasize her disgust that things still haven’t changed, and that too many people don’t care.
Still, not all of them are dark. Her rendition of “The Dog Song,” a work which earned acclaim from Doris Day’s foundation, was sparkling and adorable, a charming description of the bond between canine and human. Another original, “Bodega,” with its Latin-esque beat and clever lyrics, was equally delightful, an ode to preserving mom-and-pop stores everywhere. As if to augment that theme, McKay sipped between numbers on an energy drink that she apparently purchased in bulk at an “old-fashioned bodega.” Given her sustained gusto throughout well over an hour of virtually non-stop music, the potion must have worked.
Throughout the night, McKay’s twists and turns were many. She spun out a cute version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” laced with a madcap audience participation segment. Her interpretation of “The Very Thought of You” was breathtakingly tender. Whenever she had lulled the listeners into contentment, however, she’d snap back with another crackling, sardonic, self-penned creation. In between selections, her remarks often were equally droll. “Fair Vermont,” she sighed once. “You once were 95% white. And now, you’re only 94% white.”
At the end of it all, the crowd — their energy unbowed despite the late hour — showered McKay with a standing ovation. She returned with the promise of two potential encores. Yet after just one — her own “It’s A Pose,” an all-out mauling of the male species — she called it a night, content to leave the audience wanting more. After such an eclectic program, perhaps they weren’t exactly sure what they wanted more of. But they probably understood that they weren’t likely to experience anything quite like it again.