Club Helsinki Hudson
Sunday, April 5, 2015
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(HUDSON, N.Y.) – Every Nellie McKay concert is different – I’ve seen at least three now – but they’re all tied together by McKay’s faux-naif character, her dazzling wit and wordplay, and her virtuosity. Musically, she ranges all over the place, from cutting-edge folk-pop songs that incorporate rapping and hip-hop rhythms to mid-20th-century novelty pop to instrumental bebop.
McKay treated the audience at Club Helsinki Hudson on Sunday night to all this and more, including a hefty helping of some oddball 1960s pop and rock with a psychedelic bent that fit perfectly into her overall aesthetic, to the point that you couldn’t always tell if a song was a McKay original or a Frank Zappa tune. What was near-miraculous was the manner in which she divined in her source material a similar outlook – or in retrospect, found the camp in these numbers that made them first cousins to her witty original compositions.
Backed by a stellar trio, including bassist Alexi David and drummer Kenneth Salters, McKay opened with some instrumental jazz, including renditions of “In the Good Old Summertime” and “Sentimental Journey” plus Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” on which she displayed her considerable bebop jazz chops as a pianist.
She then wisely segued into her own “Inner Peace” from her dazzling debut album, “Get Away from Me,” a brilliant choice as the tune features long jazz arpeggios that you then realized owe a debt to Monk.
Then McKay began peppering the show with songs from her brand-new album, “My Weekly Reader,” moving over to electric keyboard for a version of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” delivered in an English accent that comes naturally to her, having grown up in her early years in London. Songwriter Ray Davies himself is underestimated as a wit, but in McKay’s hands, this classic rock number revealed itself to be as offbeat as anything McKay has ever written.
Other highlights were forays into psychedelia, including Steve Miller’s “Quicksilver Girl,” “Red Rubber Ball” made famous by the Cyrkle, but actually written by Paul Simon, and Peter and Gordon’s hit, “A World Without Love,” penned by Paul McCartney (she seemed to be engaging in a bit of whimsical rock history here, pulling out unlikely songs written by the superstar songwriters of the rock era), segueing into “Georgy Girl,” a huge hit for the Seekers (with lyrics by Jim Dale).
She also delivered Nellie-fied versions of the Beatles’ “If I Fell” and “Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Poor People” by Alan Price, and Country Joe McDonald’s 1967 song, “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine.”
As in every show of hers I’ve seen, at some point, McKay blanked on lyrics and made false starts. I’m finally of the opinion that this is her purposeful shtick, and serves to deconstruct the craft of slick performance in the same way her superficially catchy pop tunes harbor a subversive streak that serves to undermine their cheerfulness – and the ditsy persona she assumes for most of her performances. It thus works as her own socio-cultural critique, while at the same time being totally entertaining. Few can pull this off, and it puts her in the league of Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell for that reason alone.