Nellie McKay is a fantastic performer. I saw her last night in Montclair, NJ, where she did more or less the same sets as when I saw her at a free concert in NYC over the summer. This time, however, she was alone onstage (without her marvelous jazz band) and I was in the second row in a small venue. In this setting, her fabulous piano skill was highlighted with high-energy playing and inventiveness. As always, her singing is great.
She prefaced “Why am I so Black and Blue?” by recalling that as a child she wondered if she’d be a better pianist if she were blind: She played it with her eyes closed for a while just to try it, and turned it from a bluesy lament into jazz romp. In her version of South Pacific’s “Wonderful Guy,” she kept the sunny, optimistic tone in her vocals, but transformed the tune into a slightly jangling dissonance with the singing, providing an ironic undermining of the words. That sort of multiple point of view in a single song comes up a lot in her shows.
When Nellie picks up her ukulele, she can be marvelously dreamy with Jobim’s Meditation, or rockin’ (yes, with a uke!) with the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired.” But when she does one of her signature songs, “Feminists Don’t Have Sense of Humour” she deploys the full range of her sharp, and a little bit weird, intelligence. She smiles and adopts the pose of a grown-up Shirley Temple, signing sweetly the anti-feminist clichés of…who? Men? She’s the one signing it like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The voices of men appear in the lyrics as raspy, vulgar interjections – Yeah, honey. Take it off! – and she flirts with them, lifting her skirt and cooing. Just who is speaking here? Fodder for meta-textual feminist theorizing abounds, but just go see her instead. [She concluded the song with the announcement, "I'm Anne Romney, and we work for a living."]
My favorite song of hers is “I Want to Get Married,” a beautiful, soulful tune with lyrics expressing a woman’s complete nullity without a man to serve and please – I want to get married, that’s why I was born. If you believe she feels that way, you’re on a different planet, but the very funny thing about it is that the song could have been sung in the 1950s, perhaps in a film with her beloved Doris Day, without a single change. And she sings it with real sadness, longing and tenderness. Her mastery of tone is tremendous…I can only think of Flaubert.