by Mike Shanley
Nellie McKay fooled me. It happened during an interview prior to her Pittsburgh performance in 2010. While talking on the phone McKay casually mentioned that she hadn’t visited the Steel City since high school when she was in the All State Jazz Band, or some equivalent.
“When was that?” asked our intrepid reporter.
After thinking for a few moments, she replied, “1982.” she said. My mind quickly estimated the math, too polite and surprised to question her age. Later that evening, a quick check of AllMusic.com revealed the truth: McKay wasn’t born until two years after the year she threw out to me.
I mention all this because there were moments during last Thursday’s show at the Andy Warhol Museum where McKay had apparently made mistakes, for which she apologized later. She stopped a few lines into “Politan,” saying “I’ll come back to this one,” and leapt into the more challenging “Inner Peace.” She almost backed out of a “work in progress” with a spot-on Marlene Deitrich imitation, singing from a lyric sheet to a pre-recorded backing track (audience enthusiasm convinced her to persevere). Some sheet music also had to be retrieved by the sound man from her dressing room.
Despite all of these alleged mishaps, McKay pulled off the solo performance with such grace and clarity, it was hard to tell if she meant them to be part of act or they were truly accidents. If she was distracted, it didn’t show in the performance.
For this visit, McKay performed solo, accompanying herself on piano and ukulele. The evening got off to an impressive start with the classic torch ballad “Midnight Sun.” Its melody requires sharp attention to phrasing and McKay delivered, over quiet and gentle piano chords. She avoided lapsing into either overdone “jazz” phrasing or bedroom-voice sensuality, preferring the crisp precision normally heard in old school balladeers like Johnny Mathis. (She approved of the comparison.)
The 70-minute set consisted of a mix of a few more jazz classics and some witty McKay originals. “Mother of Pearl” again revealed the mischievous McKay. Strumming her uke, she sang the hot-button lyric “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor,” eliciting laughs from the audience. As the song continued, it became clear that she was really lampooning people who make that statement, especially when she finished by announcing, “I’m Michelle Bachman and I approve this message.” Other uke highlights including an “English medley” of “A World Without Love,” “Georgy Girl” and “I’m So Tired,” the latter complete with the pregnant pauses where drum fills normally appear.
McKay, dressed in a strapless red dress and pink go-go boots (“from Nancy Sinatra’s yard sale”), didn’t acknowledge the audience for the first few songs, but she warmed up as things proceeded. She dedicated “Long and Lazy River” to Tom Corbett, saying the governor has “a long and lazy river to his soul and he shouldn’t hydrofrack it.” A life size cut-out of the Warhol’s namesake stood onstage, as did a singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer doll, who sat with her during one song. “C’mon Rudolph, let’s go kill a hunter,” she quipped at the climax.
The sold-out Warhol theater roared with approval, whether McKay was offering tongue-in-cheek support for gay marriage, casually mentioned gun control laws or singing “I Wanna Get Married.” It all seemed believable and strong.