Looking like a Miss Georgia contestant — a shock of blonde hair, a sparkly back evening dress, glowing skin and a Vaseline smile — and cussing like Sid Vicious, Nellie McKay lived up to her rep as an eccentric, genre-bending talent at Sunday’s midnight show at Joe’s Pub in downtown New York. Propping herself on a rumpled stack of songbooks on the piano bench, she started with the slow, dreamy “Suitcase Song” (“try and tempt fate, get pneumonia,” she sang, “recuperate with soy bologna”) before shifting into an improvised ditty in which she dubbed herself the “demon child of Joe’s Pub.”
p>Or at least of Broadway. McKay, who’s near the end of her run as Polly in a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, expressed her distaste for the numerous celebrities in the production with a vitriolic tune in which she sang, “How many ways can I say I hate you?” — dissing a co-star’s “hideous hairdo” and “signature scent” (Jim Dale? Alan Cumming? Cindy Lauper? Or even scriptwriter Wallace Shawn?)
The crowd — packed with hipsters, Boomer sophisticates and probably a heavy dose of NPR listeners and theater majors — laughed loudly at McKay’s brash, irreverent banter. At one point, she told a joke she attributed to her father: “Pretend I have a lemon in my ear and ask me why I have a lemon in my ear.” With a broad grin crossing her face she delivered the outrageously tame punch line, “Well, some people have a hearing aid. I have a lemon aid.” Buh-dump-bum.
After the decidedly retro lemon bit, McKay dove right back into her set, which maintained a very unscripted, manic feel, despite her polished keyboard acrobatics. When she’s jazzy and light, her voice can be incredibly smooth; when she’s angry, she sounds more like Eminem. A pill-pushing doctor in the house might have been worked up a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder — but McKay’s harder to pin down than that.
Before she sang “Pounce,” an insistently silly song about cats off her delayed sophomore release, the singer took time out to give the audience the hard sell. “This song is just filler, really, for an already overlong album,” she shrugged. “It’s really catchy, though. This is Z100 material.” With the audience laughing, she sang, “I’m gonna pounce, pounce/ . . . Meeeerrrrooow!/ Like a pussy cat!” It was a cute tune, and when it’s over she addressed the audience: “Yeah, and if you play it backwards, it says, ‘Fuck you.’ “
From the fluffy pets she clearly adores, McKay worked her way down her list of enemies (all human), taking clever digs at a pretty diverse cast, including Harry Connick, Jr., Kurt Loder (“I could give a shit about MTV!”) and several New York theater critics. She told an anecdote about a prisoner at Riker’s who couldn’t get a cup of water in court, which immediately led to a tirade about the backwards criminal justice system. She had extensive, mumbling conversations with herself between songs, alternately giggling and scowling and making animal sounds. She also performed one-woman skits — like one in which Bob Dylan tells her how Paris Hilton is set to play him in the upcoming Hollywood biopic. In the pauses between songs, she asked trivia questions and gave prizes. First prize was a framed Van Gogh print. (Not a real shocker, considering the Dutch painter was also in the hard-to-classify club.)
The obvious (and grossly inaccurate) comparison is to Fiona Apple. After all, they’re both quirky, cute, gifted and unpredictable animal-loving pianists. But that analogy can go right out the window. Apple should take a lesson from McKay, who manages to muster up even more wit — or seeming psychosis — to boost the entertainment level.
Towards the show’s close, she started rapping (this is when she really sounds like Eminem), moving into her song “Sari.” “I’m sorry for you,” she sang to the audience. The tune morphed into a freewheeling, ticked-off session, intercut with a stuttering speech about domestic violence and the meaning of life that miraculously ended up coming together in the end when she finally lifted her fingers off the keys. After an encore, McKay smiled at the crowd and said, “Okay. I’ll see you at the Gap.” Then she shrugged and ducked back behind the curtain.