Half the time you can’t tell if Nellie McKay is being serious or funny. Monday night at The Egg’s Swyer Theater, she moved from grave to hilarious without letting on which was which. The audience wasn’t always sure either, judging from the sporadic laughter.
“I’ll have my coffee black, hey look we’re bombing Iraq,” went the lyrics in the opener “Toto Dies.” She followed with “Pink Chandelier,” holding the lyrics with her right hand while playing single notes on the piano with her right hand.
She sang next a song about cloning, “an odd choice for a family planning convention,” she said. She could have said this about every song. McKay’s show was a benefit for the Family Planning Advocates of New York State.
“Bored rich folk, we don’t need no natural yolk, our babies come full formed, Clonie,” went the song. Simple sounding on top, but underneath she played a robust piano.
Zany and enormously talented, she worked hard to avoid serious moments, like blessing a sneezer in the middle of singing a verse.
Flipping through her folders looking for a song, she muttered, “I do find preparation to be overrated.” Buying herself time between another song, she said, “There’s nothing in the news to talk about.” She went on to lament about Eliot Spitzer, whose political future was in doubt Monday night. Her stream of consciousness went something like: “Just put Eliot Spitzer in a house with no heat. Oh man I don’t want to be him for now. Sinners get it. They will get it. Not the big sinners, not like Dick Cheney. He’ll go to heaven and drive around in a Cadillac.”
Then came “I Wanna Get Married,” a beautiful satire that she delivered with great sadness. But her sweet voice and genuine tone, the first time all night, forced us to take the song seriously, despite lyrics like “I need to cook meals Then read Danielle Steele And I’ll stay home cleaning the dishes, And keeping your wishes all warm.” Here there was no laughter. Just her soft voice and the sparse strum of her ukulele.
She talked about getting honored by PETA alongside Al Sharpton. “He gave a great speech. He has no chance and he’s right on so many things. Blow up thousands of people and you’re doing fine. Mess up on little things and you’re out of the game.”
No two songs — no two lines — sound the same for McKay.
A cross between a sexy Betty Boop and a cutesy Jan Brady, she whispered the somber “Long and Lazy River.” “How do you know you can’t be wrong? You got a long and lazy river to your soul.”
She played a few jazzy tunes, like “The Dog Song,” swinging very much like Mose Allison.
With her packed lyrics and enjoyable characters — and of course her political messages — McKay was wildly entertaining. Too bad the show was so short.