Nellie McKay has made a reputation as one of the most unique acts in cabaret, combining an idiosyncratic taste in music with her skilled (and unlikely) interpretations. Her latest show at 54 Below, somewhat sarcastically titled Nice Try, 60's, continues down that path. This musical tribute to the 1960s eschews the goliath hits of that era in favor of some obscure gems, resulting in a stimulating evening of cabaret that is sure to have you running to Google upon leaving the dining room.
Keeping the small talk to a minimum, McKay squeezes a remarkable 21 songs into this 75-minute show. She performs most of the tracks on her new album, My Weekly Reader (her first since 2010's Home Sweet Mobile Home), as well as several songs not on the CD.
The evening starts with the meek and unimposing "Janis" (written by Country Joe McDonald). McKay sounds like a music box, intoning this soft lullaby with her instantly recognizable voice. This sleepy prelude gives way to the far bouncier Small Faces number "Itchycoo Park." McKay takes us to Carnaby Street with the Kinks' lament of progressive taxation, "Sunny Afternoon," which McKay endows with a thin layer of irony. She straps on her harmonica for Paul Simon and Bruce Woodley's "Red Rubber Ball," which turns out to be one of the evening's highlights. It's just so much fun!
In addition to singing, McKay plays five different instruments throughout the night, switching between the piano and her Hammond organ (without which no tribute to the 1960s is complete). She delivers a thrilling rendition of Gene McDaniels' jazz poem "Compared to What," giving plenty of time for the three musicians in her band ("The Cosmic X-Rays") to show off. Cary Parker wails on his guitar through his multiple solos, giving us studio-quality sounds. Drummer Kenneth Salters uses his symbols to exacerbate the slightly sinister edge to the Doors' "People Are Strange," for which McKay leads the audience in a sing-along.
Bob Dylan's "Clothes Line Saga" becomes a Peggy Lee-style monologue in McKay's understated theatrical performance. She has an undeniable talent for interpreting lyrics, mining them for all their subversive power. That's why it's so unfortunate that the evening suffers from chronic balance problems, with McKay's gentle wisp of a voice often buried under an avalanche of percussion. On top of that, a constant stream of projected psychedelic images is mostly lost on the gilt walls of 54 Below. It's as if the space is physically resisting the show's hippie-dippy themes.
McKay and her band (pacifist though they are) fight back: She charges up the room with a version of Country Joe McDonald's antiwar anthem "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," featuring updated lyrics to reflect our current geopolitical situation ("Vietnam" replaced with "Afghanistan"). She even manages to sneak in a sly reference to Senator John McCain's infamous refrain of "bomb bomb Iran."
McKay's puckish political and social commentary runs throughout the evening, but you might easily miss it if you weren't listening closely. Referencing Eric Garner, near the end of the Moby Grape number "Murder in My Heart for the Judge," she stage-whispers, "I can't breathe." By this point, the song has evolved into a prolonged jam session for McKay and her band, lulling us into a trance with its groovy synthesis of musical improvisation and lyrical non sequiturs. "What do we want? Time travel," McKay chants, "When do we want it? It's irrelevant." For this cabaret tribute to the music of the 1960s, McKay presents a perfect encapsulation of its heady ideals divorced from any real responsibility. Unlike love beads, that's something that will never go out of fashion in America's musical circles.
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