Saturday, February 23, 2019

Nellie McKay's Show at the Andy Warhol Museum

There's a lot to unload from the past week or so: Peter Tork's death; the announcement that Juke Records will be closing in a few months; a pile of records that I bought as a result of that announcement; my son getting braces; Nellie McKay's show at the Warhol last week.

I'll probably devote a whole post to Peter before long. Pittsburgh Current posted a piece I wrote opining on Juke's closing right here. If you click on it, you'll see that not just the store but the storefront has been a big part of Pittsburgh music for quite some time. So, with all due respect to my son, that leaves Nellie.

Leading up to the show, she and I talked by phone, covering a range of topics from how she wound up covering Moby Grape's "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" (her mom turned her on to it) to the activist tendencies we all have at the root of beings. (She didn't put it that way. I'm just sort of paraphrasing.) Some of those highlights can be found here.

At the theater in the Andy Warhol Museum, the performer has to enter the room through the doors in the back, the same way the audience does, which means they potentially have to run the gauntlet of fans. Or someone is likely to say, "Look, there she is!" McKay came in without fanfare but instead of being introduced, she went up to the soundboard and spoke through a mike, saying that she was Andy Warhol's mother. She then went on a long explanation that asked that patrons turn off their cellphones. Then Mama Warhol introduced the evening's entertainer and Nellie and ukuleles made their way to the stage, starting the set off with the Paul Simon-penned hit (for the Cyrkle) "Red Rubber Ball." When it came time for the key change in the final verse, she modulated with ease, like it was second nature. This strong sense of technique would factor heavily during the next 75 minutes or so.

The last time McKay played the Warhol, there were several moments during the set where she started one song and stopped before completing it. She also expressed doubt about playing something, going forward only after getting encouragement from the crowd. It could have been a shtick or maybe she was off (it was still a great show) but none of that doubt happened this time around.

McKay, alternating between the piano and the ukuleles, leaned heavily on interpretations, downplaying her own songs. But that was no easy covers set because her choices provided their own challenges. Les McCann's fired-up R&B hit "Compared to What" needs to be delivered with a punch, and Nellie used two fists for her version. She even recreated the modulation through every key that McCann did in his version. She dove into the Beatles' "If I Fell" on uke, taking it in what seemed like a pretty high register. Nevertheless, it showed the extent of her vocal range, pulling off the song without the need for a harmony partner like John and Paul did.

Among the clever moments of the night, she chose "High Anxiety," from the Mel Brooks movie of the same name. She also added a song from her upcoming stage show about Joan Rivers. The standard "Where Or When," which appears on last year's Sister Orchid album, started off with the rarely-heard verse. "A-Tisket A-Tasket" came at a pretty brisk pace, with McKay handling the lead vocals and the shout-vocals that usually come from the band. Tempos like that one never deterred McKay's piano chops,  even while she rapped in double-time.

When she welcomed requests during the encore, calls went up for "Dog Song" and "David," which almost makes you wonder how well the audience knows albums like Pretty Little Head or even her Doris Day tribute album Normal As Blueberry Pie. (Somehow "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" felt like too much of a mouthful to yell as a request.) But it seems like "Dog Song" is one of the obligatory parts of her set. The verse done in Tom Waits voice worked well because she also had the lower range for that.

Afterwards, Nellie graciously signed numerous album covers (see above) and posed for pictures, including the top shot in this entry. I handed her the Pittsburgh Current issue with her preview in it, thinking she might want to check it out. Before I could explain, she and her sharpie were signing it for me: "Keep one eye closed at all times. Lots of love, Nellie. xox." Sigh

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