Nellie McKay

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Nellie McKay

Feinstein’s at the Nikko, San Francisco, CA, June 1, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Murray for Cabaret Scenes

Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay is very clever, enticing her sold-out audience with sparse, concise and very recognizable versions of Great American Songbook classics, then peppering her set with delightful, often obscure gems and her own quirky, humorous originals. The British-American singer-songwriter, actress, and former comedienne performed almost three dozen songs making it very difficult for this reviewer to pare down the magic moments without destroying her impeccable rhythm. I loved it all—from her funny between-song banter, her lovely piano style, the sweet ukulele accompaniment, and her easy-going, never showy, vocals.

Supporting her latest CD, Sister Orchid, McKay transforms chestnuts like “My Romance,” “Angel Eyes,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and “Everything Happens to Me.” Ballads will have a surprising tempo change and swing tunes get a refreshing new look. Bob Dorough’s “Small Day Tomorrow” receives a wry treatment. The Beatles number “If I Fell” and Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball”were unfussy and hugely effective, as was her lovely cover of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ 1964 hit “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” A social activist, McKay played to the leftist San Francisco audience with her sardonic “Poor People,” sung from the perspective of a one-percenter who chides the poor with “A man’s gotta make whatever he wants, and take it with his own hands.”

McKay has a great sense of humor and irony, evident on “Won’t U Please B Nice,” her swinging, anti-romance ditty. “Naughty Lola,” a Marlene Dietrich cover, is a hoot sung in a faux German accent. Her take on the war against undocumented immigrants is met with a tongue -in-cheek “Don’t Fence Me In.” “Crazy Rhythm,” a 32-bar swing show tune written in 1928 by Irving Caesar, Joseph Meyer, and Roger Wolfe Kahn for the Broadway musical Here’s Howe, is a delight in McKay’s capable hands. Her “Dog Song” is a wacky love ode to her pet.

McKay can switch genres on a dime and there’s always rhyme and reason to her playfulness. Case in point: she segues from Richard & Mimi Fariña’s dark and spellbinding folk ballad “Bold Marauder” into a light and fluffy cover of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” The juxtaposition was stunning.

McKay is a well-kept secret among her fans, myself included. We get her all to ourselves and that makes it even more special and intimate.

Steve Murray

Always interested in the arts, Steve was encouraged to begin producing and, in 1998, staged four, one-man vehicles starring San Francisco's most gifted performers. In 1999, he began the Viva Variety series, a live stage show with a threefold mission to highlight, support, and encourage gay and gay-friendly art in all the performance forms, to entertain and document the shows, and to contribute to the community by donating proceeds to local non-profits. The shows utilized the old variety show style popularized by his childhood idol Ed Sullivan. He’s produced over 150 successful shows, including parodies of Bette Davis’s gothic melodramedy Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Joan Crawford’s very awful Trog. He joined Cabaret Scenes 2007 and enjoys the writing and relationships he’s built with very talented performers.