Nellie McKay performed at The Pheasantry as part of the London Festival of Cabaret.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Nellie McKay is a British-born American singer-songwriter and actress, noted for her critically acclaimed albums, and for her Broadway debut playing Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera (2006).
This was McKay’s first show in London. Her music is not easily defined, and her performance at The Pheasantry covered many fields, including cabaret, 1960s Brit pop, folk, reggae and jazz.
Accompanying herself on the piano and ukulele, McKay opened the show with a gentle folk ballad, revealing a surprisingly small and sweet voice. In fact, words like ‘surprising’ and ‘unexpected’ kept recurring through my mind during this highly idiosyncratic performance.
Breaking the usual conventions of cabaret, apart from ‘Pennies From Heaven’, where she varied the tempo throughout her improvised piano solo, she featured three slow-tempo quiet numbers at the start of the show. One of these was the self-penned ‘Long and Lazy River’ with a lovely languorous quality that quite transported us to balmy Mississippi evenings.
Her languid delivery and purity of sound belie the great complexity in her work, both musically and lyrically, and the skills inherit in producing the music. Her jazz piano is frequently robust and discordant, in direct opposition to her vocals.
Throughout the evening, McKay checked her list and appeared to decide on the spot what she fancied singing, giving both her performance and accompaniment a improvised and unstudied air.
As she moved between the different styles, without any obvious over-arching theme, a sudden change from a song with a feminist message at the piano to a seemingly random choice of Herman’s Hermits ‘Mrs Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’ with the ukulele, felt almost startling. The apparent simplicity was most beguiling and refreshingly different from the usual cabaret or jazz fare.
Despite appearances, her work conveys much left-leaning social commentary. A highlight of the first half was a medley of Alan Price songs ‘Poor People’ and ‘Justice’, cleverly highlighting the need for money to buy justice, the seriousness of the lyrics contrasting sharply with the jolly calypso arrangement.
She dedicates a number of items either to political figures, such as Bernie Sanders, whom she supports, or friends she has known. While smiling very sweetly, she described one now late friend as a ‘pain in the ass’ and a ‘shithead’, but a wonderful improvisational artist and activist.
What followed was a song for her ‘arch-nemesis’ Harry Connick Jnr: “I don’t like you, but I guess I need you… I guess you’ve got me in between the devil and the deep blue sea” (Ted Koehler/Harold Arlen).
Later, she played a piano solo created originally by Teddy Wilson, known in his day as ‘the Marxist Mozart’. Also included was a fascinating protest song about the first woman to be executed in a gas chamber in one of the States.
Apart from these dedications, there was very little patter between numbers, even when there was a total break in genre. Rather, she just kept going. While this added to the constant surprising feel (there’s that word again!), it would have been nice to hear her talk more about herself, her influences and what inspires her.
Although I enjoyed the poetry of much of her self-penned work, a couple of standout pieces I must mention are The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’, with her fabulous jazz piano arrangement, and a searingly funny updated version of Tom Lehrer’s ‘What Are We Fighting For?’ on the futility of war.
Again, breaking the ‘rules’, she ended on a ballad, and without any warning, left the stage. She did come back for encores, including a request from an audience member, the amusing ‘Your Cat’ (also known as ‘Ding Dong’), and ‘You Made Me Love You’, with lyrics adapted for her favourite politician Bernie Sanders.
A delightful and exceptionally talented, if somewhat bewildering performer, you should definitely catch her if she comes to London again.
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