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Review Tue Sep 23 2014
I can still vividly remember walking into a big box store and purchasing a CD of Get Away From Me, the amazing double album debut of Nellie McKay. I had seen the album online on some random message board thread heralding the best albums of 2004. The cover's unlikely combination of visuals grabbed me. McKay, with her golden locks spilling out of her red hooded coat, looked completely out of place in front of the graffiti packed brick wall. Toward the bottom left corner of the cover laid the stark parental advisory warning. I couldn't understand how all these elements came together, but I needed to find out. I quickly walked out of the store and began playing the album in my father's car. I fell in love with the brilliant storytelling, beautiful instrumentation, and rapping ability of Nellie McKay. A mix of jazz, hip hop, blues and countless other genres appeared on McKay's oeuvre over the next decade and every one of them was gracefully mastered by her voice. This past weekend, Nellie McKay came to SPACE and showed every bit of her mastery.
Opening up the night was the wonderful Diana Lawrence, a local pianist and charming performer. She really wasted no time showing off her prowess with "Train to Chicago", a bluesy number that highlighted her sultry voice and nimble piano playing. It was the type of performance that had people hooked from the first note. She played songs usually performed with her band Diana and the Dishes, making sure that everyone in the crowd remembered the name. Lawrence was incredibly talkative, engaging the audience with a fun sincerity that never fell flat. During "Mess Around (I Don't Wanna)" she asked the crowd to snap their finger on the off beats, giving extra bonus points to those who snapped throughout the song. Her songwriting was quirky and absolutely enchanting, even when singing about the apocalypse in "Fast Food Prophet". When there was a moment of humor in her music, it was often inescapable, permeating a laugh throughout the venue. These moments only made her more serious endeavors shine, like the sad love of "Satellite", the anticipatory "End of the Line" and the intriguingly different cover of "Feeling Good". There are obvious similarities between Lawrence and McKay, and they are seemingly quite welcome. Lawrence raved about headliner, constantly showing her enthusiasm for being McKay's opening performer.Lawrence ended her time with the stage with "I'd Rather Be Lonely", adding a little quip of "get out of my face" at the songs fishing notes. I quite sure the crowd at SPACE would have been willing to spend a little more time with Lawrence after that endearing performance.
Nellie McKay came to the stage with a quick pep in her step, carrying a bundle of papers under her arm. Gone were the golden locks that had been so identifiable to me, shorn off and dyed to a near jet black under the SPACE lights. She quickly went to her seat in front of the piano and began playing, running through the keys in with unbelievable finesse. She transitioned the playing to a cover of Billie Holiday's "Did I Remember?", her unique cadence carrying the song along with a certain sadness. Her set was filled with amazing covers that she elevated to a new threshold. Songs like the jazz standard "I Cover the Waterfront" and the Shel Silverstein penned, Loretta Lynn sung country hit "One's on the Way" were given a new light, gently rendered by McKay's twinkling piano. However, my favorite cover came along while she was on the ukulele, taking on The Beatles' "I'm So Tired". It felt like a dream come true, hearing McKay singing one of my favorite songs with such poise.
While the night was filled with glorious covers, McKay did play some original songs that spanned her career, touching upon some big crowd favorites from her debut. She started her first encore, which came about forty minutes in, with "Ding Dong" and was meant with a quick a gracious applause before the first line was even uttered. She knew exactly how to feed into the audience's whim and desire, especially with her humor. McKay has always had a sharp sardonic tone in both her music and patter, which was in full effect that evening. She dedicated "One's on the Way" to Planned Parenthood and the ironically anti-feminist "Mother Pearl" was brought to the audience by Michelle Bachmann instead of Dennis Kucinich for this live event. Little switch ups like that were made in a bunch of songs, making them feel new and current. McKay lamented the results of the Scottish Independence vote, likening them to an abused woman who won't leave a bad relationship before singing Peggy Lee's "He's a Tramp". Every wisecrack and witticism was accompanied by her devilish smile, knowing that everyone got the jokes.
McKay finished off her incredible set an extra encore, which in my mind made up unfortunately short time she performed. She asked the audience for songs they would like to hear and they burst with suggestion spanning her entire discography. Even after she had made up her mind on the songs, people tried to influence her on others, which she instantly shot down with a amiable reprimand. The decided on doing a medley, transition from the two instruments of the night. "The Dog Song" began with a quick jangle of the piano keys, going along further than anyone probably thought it would. It merged into the pseudo-rap masterpiece "Sari", strongly clinging onto the harden cries that had emanated from the more powerful sections of the song. Hearing McKay angrily screech "well then your fucked/cuz you gotta make a buck/and the whole world sucks" brought an uncontrollable smile to my face. She performed the song with the exact viciousness it deserved. She rose from her seat, came to the standing mic with her ukulele in hand and bid farewell with the reggae inspired tune "Caribbean Time". McKay voice was lovely and kind, getting the audience into a call and repeat chant at the end. Ohs and ahs echoed, as well as a decree for Joan Rivers of "Don't! Take! Selfies! While! Operating!", before McKay stepped off the stage one last time, ready to meet with her adoring audience.