Who was the real Nellie McKay?
Was it the piano songstress that journeyed through the disparate repertoires of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day? Could it have been the songsmith that explored socio-political views with expert wit? Maybe it was the interpreter that mined a litany of cover songs that stretched from Lionel Hampton to Tom Waits. Or it could have been the stage artist that reflected the lightness of a cabaret singer and the lyrical severity of an aware activist.
All of these personas converged with dizzyingly ingenuity into McKay’s wondrous two-set, sold-out Lexington debut last night at Natasha’s. The show started late and the audience was cramped uncomfortably into seats that practically put patrons in each other’s laps. But McKay’s devilish show was worth the hassles.
Striking vogue poses to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze as she took the stage, McKay opened with the torchy “love turned to tumbleweeds” lament The Portal and the Fitzgerald favorite A Tisket, A Tasket, which heightened a cartoon-like playfulness that dutifully propelled much of the concert.
From there, one had to fasten the stylistic seat belts. Dispossessed (one of nine originals pulled from McKay’s recent Home Sweet Mobile Home album) was all finger-popping gospel with a New Orleans second line groove from drummer Ben Bynhum while The Dog Song, with funky, tuba-like bass from Alexi David, was a piano reverie that revealed a woman’s best friend walks on four legs. Please, on the other hand, had McKay dancing a demented hula (“Please Mr. Hula-Hoop, keep on ballistic; you must be a man that got to be sadistic”) to a pedal-saturated guitar break from Cary Park.
There was also an alert and pointed wit to many of McKay’s originals, including the hysterical Mother of Pearl, which viewed feminism through ultra-conservative eyes before ending with a cryptic campaign reference (“I’m Sarah Palin and I approved this message”). The tune cleverly paralleled a later cover of Loretta Lynn’s ballad of domestic overpopulation (One’s on the Way) and McKay’s savagely tongue-in-cheek I Wanna Get Married (“I wanna pack cute little lunches for my Brady Bunches”).
And then there were the glorious covers, highlighted by the stratospheric soprano tone of 1929’s Broadway Melody and a throaty take on Waits’ Straight to the Top (which McKay admitted wound up sounding more like Jimmy Durante).
But the show-stealer was a straight-faced reading of the 1957 Hampton-penned Fitzgerald classic Midnight Sun, a cool blast of serious jazz that elicited more than a few audience gasps when it concluded. It was the most quietly lavish moment in this delirious pop cabaret.