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What makes Nellie McKay special on the Dakota menu

Posted by: Jon Bream under Music Updated: January 8, 2013 - 1:05 AM

A few thoughts after seeing Nellie McKay, the New York cabaret star, once again at the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday. Her two-night stand closes on Tuesday, with a 7 p.m. performance.

• She and Bettye LaVette are the only Dakota out-of-town regulars whom I see during every one of their engagements.

• She’s witty, silly, goofy, corny and hilarious. She uses humor to disarm the audience when things get too heavy, too serious, too political.

• She always manages to get political. Not just with feminism and social issues but attacking both Bachmann and Obama – with humor, of course.

 

• Even her old lines sound fresh – because of the way she delivers them. Like acknowledging her non-existent backup band – and humming the parts they would have played.

• Her faraway eyes add to the dreaminess and loneliness of her serious songs.

• A cabaret savant, she is a gifted pianist, knowledgeable in many styles from jazz and classical to pop and soul– and able to seamlessly weave them together in the same song or a medley.

• She is a performer of many voices – from sweet and innocent jazz and pop ingénue and Alanis Morissette-like screamer to a Tom Waits imitator and big-city rapper.

• Even though she came across like the daughter of Doris Day and Goldie Hawn raised by Tiny Tim, Gloria Steinem and Randy Newman, McKay, 30, is truly an original.

• She is smart and smart-alecky, fast and fearless, and proudly unhip and old-fashioned.

• She answered requests even if she didn’t remember the key or the words. She winged one a cappella. And then wished the woman who requested it “happy birthday” as if McKay had just given the woman a present.

• She always wears gorgeous vintage dresses – a bottle-green velveteen one in the first set, a black one with green flowers and sequins for the second set.

• She really knows how to use the ukulele – in a musical way, not just as a cutesy prop.

• Her poignant rendition of Dave Frishberg’s piano piece “Listen Here” was a highlight.

• She taught the audience three-part harmony in Mandarin on one number and had everyone singing along.

• She may be at her best when she turns into a one-woman “Saturday Night Live” skit, playing different characters by changing her voice and accent. Loved her spontaneous dialog between Paul McCartney and John Lennon before singing "A World without Love" and her Garrison Keillor impression about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

• If Keillor is really serious about retiring soon, Nellie McKay is whom he should hire as the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
 

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