Nellie McKay is one of those artists you'll be glad you saw on the way up (like catching Bruce Springsteen in a small club, which I happened to do in 1973). This is because McKay's star is burning brightly these days and she is going to be very big.
McKay (pronounced mick-kai) detonated her vocal dynamite on Sunday evening at the Deer Head Inn, a Delaware Water Gap, Pa. institution that happens to be the oldest continuously running jazz club in the U.S. It was the eve of her week-long residency at the 54 Below supper club in Manhattan's Theater District, just off Broadway and a few blocks from Carnegie Hall, two venues where she no doubt will be a headliner some day.
Beyond being a terrific singer (and a damned good pianist and ukelele player), a big part of what makes McKay so special is the consciousness raising message she brings to the stage while stopping thisshort of being drop-dead funny. There is not another contemporary artist, let alone one so at home with jazz, rock, pop and torchlight standards, who so lethally combines the serious and the hilarious. Neither has undercut the other whenever we have seen her high-wire act over the years, and the balance between the two poles was pitch perfect at the Deer Head even when, in one between-songs monologue, she took off on rapacious developers who have despoiled her native Poconos, turning the once lovely region into one big waterpark and strip mall.
McKay is touring in support of My Weekly Reader, a new album of covers of iconic 1960s songs her mother played when she was a little kid growing up near the Water Gap. These include hits by The Beatles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Small Faces and Herman's Hermits (whom I saw in another small club in 1967; some guys calling themselves The Who opened for them). There also are lesser known songs by Frank Zappa, Richard and Mimi Farina, Country Joe McDonald and Moby Grape.
McKay's lilting soprano is hard to pin down, but there is a bit of Billy Holiday and a lot of Doris Day in it. In fact, in 2009 she recorded Normal As Blueberry Pie, a tribute album to Day -- like herself a rabid animal rights activist. (Ever the contrarian, she wanted to name her 2003 debut album Penis Envy, but her record company objected and it was released as Get Away From Me.)
"The beauty of the Sixties is freedom," McKay says. "Not in the way that the word has been co-opted. The main parts of these movements seem to have been ignored in favor of more trivial aspects. What goes unmentioned about the hippie movement is that it was largely a vegetarian movement. The civil rights movement was largely anti-war. The feminist movement was anti-pornography — that is more relevant today than ever before. This was the generation that ended a war and it was the stonedest generation.
"I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit," she adds.
In a two-set, 27 cover-song ramble, McKay was ably backed by Cary Park on guitar, Alexi David on bass guitar and Kenneth Salters on drums. Highlights included an appropriately bittersweet "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" (Herman's Hermits), a spooky "People Are Strange" (The Doors), a bouncy "Compared To What?" (Les McCann and Eddie Harris, among many others), a trenchant "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine" (Country Joe McDonald), and a driving "Murder In My Heart For the Judge" (Moby Grape). The second encore provided a pitch-perfect ending, a note-warping "Wooden Ships," the great Crosby, Stills & Nash post-apocalyptic anthem.
But McKay's beautiful rendition of the Beatles' "If I Fell" was the show stopper. She sang Lennon's lead part, while she added her dubbed voice twice over to create the McCartney and Harrison backup harmonies on My Weekly Reader, which was produced by Geoff Emerick. Yeah, the same guy who was behind the controls at Abbey Road Studios in 1964 for the original recording of that love song for A Hard Day's Night.
As another reviewer put it, Nellie McKay still wears the mystique of a willful prodigy who is smarter, more talented and hipper than everyone else. Yes, she seems to answer only to herself, but that is a big part of her charm. But see her now while she's still doing smaller places; it won't be the same singing along with a few thousand of her best friends. You have been warned.
* * * * *This is what New York Times critic Stephen Holden had to say about McKay's show the next night.