You are here:Home>Concert Reviews>Nellie McKay lives up to her hype

Nellie McKay lives up to her hype

Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay revealed to a San Francisco audience that she has received her share of hate mail.

But don’t be alarmed, she said, continuing the story after performing several songs. Most of the messages came from people she knows.

That’s McKay fearless and funny. It’s a combination that graces her thoroughly original music.

McKay is a piano playing, cursing, rapping, jazz singing, cultural reference dropping, politically outspoken chanteuse who has released one of the year’s most entertaining CDs. The 20-year-old is a bridge between two unlikely worlds Tin Pan Alley and hip-hop.

Her recent solo appearance at The Independent, a cozy San Francisco club, was a chance to see McKay perform songs from her acclaimed double-disc debut, "Get Away From Me." It has been speculated that the title is a poke at Norah Jones’ "Come Away With Me."

Dressed in a pink party dress and with her blonde hair shining, McKay looked like a debutante straight out of the 1950s. But appearances are deceiving. She is no Doris Day wannabe.

While other recent newcomers have established themselves by singing old standards, McKay bursts with too much to say to be a retro act. "Yeah, I’ll have my coffee black. Hey look we’re bombing Iraq," she sings in her song, "Toto Dies."

During the show, which was being filmed, McKay performed more than two dozen original songs. She also threw in a beautiful version of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s "Skylark."

In between, she offered hilarious rants about whatever was on her mind, including the recent election, real estate developers and high school, where she used to sneak Anita O’Day into the musical mix much to the dismay of her Destiny’s Child-listening classmates.

Her audience included young hipsters, who mouthed the words to her songs, and an older NPR-listening crowd, who caught the sly references to Ethel Merman and Truman Capote that McKay drops into her songs.

Go ahead and smoke, she told the crowd at one point. "I grew up around smoke. To me, it means love."

McKay's CD showed a maturity and sophistication beyond her years, and her live show is no different. Accompanying herself on piano, she moved easily from ballads to rap-inspired numbers.

If one of her rants or songs is too harsh, McKay has the ability to turn that moment around with a self-deprecating remark or by leading the crowd in a sing-a-long. McKay can also go the other way. Not one to wallow in sentiment, she can give a song an unexpected kick. The song "Won’t U Please B Nice" is an example. McKay sings, "If you would sit/Oh so close to me/That would be nice/Like it’s supposed to be/If you don’t/ I’ll slit your throat."

She had the crowd grinning during "The Dog Song," a happy, goofy tune about walking her dog. She then had listeners mesmerized with "Really," a beautiful song about apathy or inaction. Like a few other McKay compositions, the song includes a couple of choice curse words. In lesser hands, the profanity would have been gratuitous, but McKay made it work.

Another one of her gems is "Manhattan Avenue," a song that captures the warmth and lyricism of a Gershwin tune. But, in McKay’s song, there are junkies and muggers.

By the end of the evening, McKay proved that she’s a tough-talkin’ sweetheart with talent to match her attitude.

She should be getting love letters instead of hate mail.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nellie McKay
  • Concert Date: 11/23/2004
  • Venue: The Independent
  • City State Country: San Francisco, Calif.
Login to post comments