“No, let’s play something else,” said Nellie McKay, startling her fans by stopping the Beatles’ “If I Fell” in its tracks at the Van Dyck on Saturday. It was OK, she sang it all the way through in her encore. But, just four songs into the first of her two sold-out shows, this detour showed off her great gift: to be vulnerable and fearless at once.
Her other gifts dazzled the crowd in their abundance and the imaginative ways she juggled them: deeply jazzy piano, a whisper-to-a-roar voice, and a stunning, whiplash ability to toggle between achingly sincere and twist-your-funny-bone-hard humor.
Joining drummer Kenneth Salters and bassist Alexi David, McKay seamlessly swung jazzy on “Pennies from Heaven,” “The Sunny Side of the Street” and “Bemsha Swing” before segueing right into her wry “Toto Dies” from her 2004 debut “Get Away From Me.” Made when she was just 19, “Away” announced a prodigious talent; she showed on Saturday how she’s deepened it. Her new “Poor People Justice” equated money and justice as compellingly as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, but made everybody laugh, too. Then she belted “I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy” from “South Pacific,” full-on Broadway style.
When she trainwrecked “If I Fell,” she eased into “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” to recover, straight and true. Standing front and center she strummed a uke in the Latin “Bodega,” the band etching a tasty uptown groove. But she cracked everybody up by singing sweetly as the guys harmonized in ever more jarring guttural tones behind her. Funny words are common — and McKay proved herself master of the twisted lyric in “Won’t You Please B Nice” with its lethal threats, with “I Wanna Get Married” charged with ironic “Leave It to Beaver”-isms and with “Inner Peace,” a psychotically agitated neo-hip-hop rant. But music that’s funny in itself is rare, and McKay makes that stuff, too.
Mercurial McKay never lingered long in any one mood. Between grand goofs “Bodega” and “Inner Peace,” she crooned “Did I Remember to Tell You That I Adore You” from a 1936 Jean Harlow/Cary Grant film.
1960s classics from her new “My Weekly Reader” came late in the set, some already taking on new forms. After the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball,” she medleyed “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” into “Georgy Girl,” then “I’m So Tired,” with an anti-sexism rap before the belted reprise. After the folk antique “Bold Marauder” came the torchy chestnut “All My Life I’ve Been Waiting for You,” McKay noting its piano solo was by Teddy Wilson and laughing in delight when a fan told her Wilson had played the Van Dyck, too. The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” McKay doubling on organ and piano, and the reggae strut “Caribbean Time” closed the set before encores of “The Dog Song” with a verse sung Tom Waits-style and some strategic panting and a full, sumptuous uke-powered “If I Fell.”
OK, yeah, so “very unique” is redundant; but Nellie McKay is very unique — and a total delight, deluxe. She seems to know every song in the world, and just how to sing it so it’s fresh and new.
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