Nellie McKay at the Dakota in 2008
Star Tribune photo by Marlin Levison
This time around, Nellie McKay had the right recipe. Absolutely the right recipe.
When she appeared at the Dakota in January, her performance was like blueberry pie (it was her tribute to Doris Day, one of her idols) instead of the fruitcake of her previous gigs at the Dakota. During Monday’s late show at the Dakota, McKay served the whole enchilada.
The New York cabaret star tossed in almost all the ingredients in her diverse kitchen – standards, Doris Day tunes, songs identified with Ella Fitzgerald, a little Lennon-McCartney, a 1967 pop chestnut and comedic originals seasoned with reggae, Latin and other flavors. Sprinkle in her wit, commentary and quirks (she pulled out a newly purchased pair of shoes from a Target bag), and this was a lovably eccentric, musically rewarding and thoroughly entertaining show.
Sounding like the daughter of Doris Day and Leon Redbone, McKay, 28, was a playful girl one moment and a ferociously swingin’ jazznik the next. To start most numbers, she would count the rhythm verbally or beat on the top of her piano. And her five-man Twin Cities band, featuring members of Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band from Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” took her direction and provided first-rate accompaniment. After the group finished “Beneath the Underdog” from her new “Home Sweet Mobile Home” CD, she gushed: “I never knew the Po-lease could be so fonky.” She wasn’t referring to the Police with southern enunciation but rather the funky drumming of Joe Pulice.
McKay’s 110-minute performance was rich in emotional and musical range. Carrying on like a hammy kid from “Glee,” she unleashed her swing chops on “A Tisket, A Tasket,” showed her deft phrasing and masterful melancholy on “If I Had You” and uncorked her wacky humor on “Mother of Pearl” (which she started, forgot the lyric, then scrapped; sang “Don’t Fence Me In” and then pulled off “Pearl” with panache).
Playing piano or ukulele,McKay teased her band (she called keyboardist Rich Dworsky “a former prison guard who’s now a Catholic priest and a GOP hopeful in 2010”) and she even dedicated a song to Kitty Carlisle Hart (“I’ve always had a strange identification with extremely wealthy people”) and another one to the late Barbara Billingsley, whom she remembered not only as June Cleaver on “Leave It To Beaver” but also as the woman” who spoke jive in ‘Airplane”.’ She also left the stage in the middle of “It’s Alright with Me” while the band grooved on to change dresses -- and then she returned to sing the chorus one more time.
Like I said, blueberry pie, fruitcake and the whole enchilada.
Here is a partial set list, as best as I can reconstruct it (she added about eight tunes not on her prepared list, some of which she hadn’t even rehearsed with the band):
Bruise in the Sky/ Sentimental Journey/??/The Very Thought of You/ Caribbean Time/ I Will Wait for You/ ??/Close Your Eyes/ The Dog Song/Body and Soul/ Georgy Girl/ A World without Love/ Bodega/ A-Tisket A-Tasket/ If I Had You/ I Want To Be Happy/ It’s Alright with Me/ Bluebird/ Wonderful Guy/ Beneath the Underdog/?? /Don’t Fence Me In/ Mother of Pearl/ Adios/ ??/ Broadway Melody/ Pasadena Woman/ Vote for Mr. Rhythm/ Crazy Rhythm ENCORE Unknown Reggae/Zombie