In performance: Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay.

There are few greater exhibitions of pop music contrast than a Nellie McKay show. Similarly, Friday night’s unaccompanied return concert at Natasha’s offered a perhaps ideal way of examining (and enjoying) the opposing styles, themes and performance strategies behind her songs.

For starters, McKay possessed the vocabulary and confidence of New York’s finest cabaret singers. On Friday night, those qualities revealed themselves in sterling readings of compositions by such disparate greats at Fats Waller, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Shel Silverstein and The Beatles. Topping the list of favored stylists, though, was Doris Day.

A brilliant case in point was a stark reading of Jobim’s Meditation, based far more on Day’s worldly but wide-eyed American version than the composer’s Brazilian-swept original. Like so many of the tunes offered during the 80-minute show, McKay’s affection for the Day sound was remarkably complete. Her singing was stately at times, coy at others and surprisingly vulnerable-sounding during the more sensitive passages.

But vulnerable was about the last tag that applied to McKay’s original material, whether it was the animated canine love offering The Dog Song (“that’s what it’s all a-bow-wow-out”), the wildly tongue-in-cheek referendum in sexual politics that fueled It’s a Pose (“Honey, your arrogance is what makes you special”) or the hysterical right-wing view of feminism at the heart of Mother of Pearl (“I’m Michelle Bachman and I approved this message”).

Musically, the show seemed almost contradictory at times. McKay’s fingers were more than up for the swing-style piano joyride of the ’20s-era classic Crazy Rhythm. But twice during the program, after she switched to ukulele, McKay became flustered enough to abort songs. There were no obvious technical gaffes. Instead, the singer simply appeared deflated and disconnected. Those moments were brief, though, and the recoveries were immediate.

There was certainly no disconnect in the show-closing encore of Dave Frishberg’s Listen Here, a personal affirmation prefaced by a New Year’s toast. The song’s sense of celebration seemed modest by design. But in McKay’s hands, it grew like a winter flame – a contained, beckoning flash of color and warmth.

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