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Nellie McKay at Natasha’s Bistro & Bar

February 5th, 2011

By Walter Tunis, Kentucky.com

Who was the real Nellie McKay? Was it the piano songstress who journeyed through the repertoires of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day? Could it have been the songsmith who explored socio-political views with expert wit? Maybe it was the interpreter who mined a litany of cover songs that stretched from Lionel Hampton to Tom Waits. Or it could have been the stage artist who reflected the lightness of a cabaret singer and the lyrical severity of an aware activist.

All of those personas converged with dizzyingly ingenuity in this two-set, sold-out Lexington debut. The show started late, and the Natasha’s audience was cramped uncomfortably into seats that practically put patrons in one another’s laps. But McKay’s devilish show was worth the hassles.

Striking vogue poses to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze as she took the stage, McKay opened with the torchy “love turned to tumbleweeds” lament The Portal and the Fitzgerald favorite A-Tisket, A-Tasket, which heightened a cartoonlike playfulness that propelled much of the concert.

From there, one had to fasten the stylistic seat belts. Dispossessed, one of nine originals pulled from McKay’s recent album Home Sweet Mobile Home, was all finger-popping gospel with a New Orleans second-line groove from drummer Ben Bynum, and The Dog Song sported funky, tubalike bass from Alexi David. Please, on the other hand, saw McKay dancing a demented hula to a pedal-saturated guitar break from Cary Park.

There was an alert wit to many of McKay’s originals, including the hysterical Mother of Pearl, which viewed feminism through ultra-conservative eyes before ending with a cryptic campaign reference (“I’m Sarah Palin, and I approved this message”). The tune cleverly paralleled the savagely tongue-in-cheek I Wanna Get Married (“I wanna pack cute little lunches for my Brady bunches”).

And then there were the glorious covers, highlighted by the stratospheric soprano tone of Broadway Melody and a throaty take on Waits’ Straight to the Top, which McKay admitted wound up sounding more like Jimmy Durante.

But the show stealer was a straight-faced reading of the 1957 Hampton-penned Fitzgerald classic Midnight Sun, a cool blast of serious jazz that was the most quietly lavish moment in this delirious pop cabaret.

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