Nellie McKay: Silent Spring—It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature

By WILL FRIEDWALD, Wall Street Journal

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The life of pioneering ecologist Rachel Carsonis herewith presented in a form that’s equal parts cabaret and musical theater. In this one-woman show, singer-songwriter-pianist Nellie McKay plays Carson in the first person, so to speak, interacting with members of her quartet (particularly saxophonist Tivon Pennicott), who put their instruments down from time to time to briefly play various figures in Carson’s life. Ms. McKay has invented what might be called bio-cabaret-collage, constructed from a combination of standard songs that support the story as well as what often seem like recycled lines from movie biopics. Despite the seriousness of the subject—Ms. Carson’s lifelong battle to protect the planet from pollution —the mood is never solemn. Still, Ms. McKay is unflinching in her belief in Carson’s message, and in the power of the great songs to tell her story.

Don’t throw away your old hardbound dictionary—recycle it. That book continually needs updating, especially because the terms we use to describe various musical forms—jazz, cabaret, musical theater, even classical music—are constantly changing. Ms. McKay’s ambition to create something new from the old-school cabaret medium, to sing the great songs in a more or less traditional fashion while using them for a new purpose, in a sense parallels Carson’s struggle to update public opinion regarding the sanctity of the environment.

All of which sounds terribly earnest, but Ms. McKay’s show brims over with carefree, reckless fun. The dramatic action begins with Ms. McKay (who has died her blonde locks brunette to look more Carsonian), percussionist Kennenth Salters and bassist Alexi Davi two-stepping in mortarboards, singing Jerome Kern’s “Make Way for Tomorrow” (from “Cover Girl”) at the scene of Carson’s graduation from college. When Carson makes a commitment to biology and science, Ms. McKay does a pas-de-deux with a microscope while singing Johnny Mercer’s “Love of My Life” (from “Second Chorus”). Likewise, a belligerent farmer (played by guitarist Cary Park), hostile to Carson’s suggestion that the DDT he’s drowning his crops in might not be a good thing, tells her that her fight to save the environment is every bit as “dumb” as the concurrent battle to integrate the nation’s school system—providing a cue into Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus.”

Ms. McKay was known primarily as a composer long before she began repurposing the Great American Songbook, and her originals contribute to the diversity, among them various numbers in reggae and even hip-hop grooves, as well as a beautiful ballad titled “Old Love.” She finds ecological relevance as well as revelry and reverie in the naturalistic lyrics of Johnny Mercer—one of the few Songbook giants to actually grow up in the country—as in “Lazy Bones” (“when taters need sprayin’…”),”Early Autumn” (“a winding country lane, all russet brown…”), or “Midnight Sun” (“the music of the universe around me, or was that a nightingale?”).

She does the same for Cole Porter, whose background was also more rural than urban, by making “Let’s Do It” into an environmental anthem, grunting and grinding it like Ray Charles. Along the way, there are moments of overwhelming tenderness, like Dave Frishberg’s haunting soliloquy, “Listen Here.” She is, by turns, sarcastic and sincere, yet the power of her message comes through. In her use of these songs—including one of her own “vintage” numbers, “Food,” from her album “Pretty Little Head”—Ms. McKay has gone beyond the concept of covers or even interpretation and provided a model of how to recontextualize old songs to tell a new story.

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