Listen to Her Play, Has Something to Say

I’ve liked Nellie McKay for several years now, and I think she might actually live fairly locally, but I’d only ever seen her live once, five and a half years ago. I noticed somewhere online that she was doing a show at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, and that was last Friday. While this venue has been standing room only for other shows Beth and I have attended, this time it had tables and chairs with open seating. The opener, Geechee Dan, sang along with backing music, sort of a karaoke thing.

Nellie played by herself, and constantly switched back and forth between piano and ukulele.

For just one song, her cover of “Red Rubber Ball,” she played both uke and harmonica. The set included a lot of the covers from My Weekly Reader, as well as a few others that weren’t on the record. She played “Pennies from Heaven” on the piano, and a version of Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (the “one, two, three, what are we fighting for?” song) with updated lyrics about current wars. There were quite a few older songs in the set as well, mostly from her first two albums; I know she performed “Ding Dong,” “Toto Dies,” “I Wanna Get Married,” “Suitcase Song,” “Work Song,” “Cupcake,” and “Long and Lazy River” (this last one dedicated to the Democratic National Convention). For “Work Song,” she directed the audience to sing the harmony parts, which include the refrain “joo ming boo haa oo.” According to Nellie, this is Mandarin for “help, there is no exit.” It’s difficult to determine whether there’s any truth to that, especially as the lyrics in the album insert spell it out phonetically rather than in Pinyin, making online translators useless. For what it’s worth, Google Translate gives “Bāngzhù, méiyǒu chūkǒu” as the Romanized translation of this phrase into Chinese. I actually wasn’t in the part of the audience that sang that; my part was just “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.” Nellie also paraphrased Tom Lehrer’s famous quotation about how Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize killed satire, which was pretty cool. One thing I’ve noted about Nellie, and I know I’m not the only one, is how her performance is able to bring together seemingly contradictory aspects. She’s twee but drops F-bombs, confident at performing while maintaining a cute awkwardness in her delivery, funny even with dealing with rather dark subjects, and old-fashioned in her musical style while working in modern references and influences, The encore consisted of “David,” “Sari,” and “The Dog Song.” I met her after the show, and she was really nice. When I told her my name, she once again sang a bit of the “Nathan Detroit” song from Guys and Dolls, which I told her she did when I met her years ago. When she said she didn’t know any other Nathan songs, I mentioned the Allan Sherman one that I referenced in my review of that show. I had considered commenting on a bit of stage banter about her cat and exfoliation, but I didn’t think of it at the time. I’m sorry for my views; I don’t know how to schmooze. I did get a picture, but since there was no one else to take it for me and I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of selfies, it didn’t come out that well.

Oh, well. As I guess you can tell and might have already known, she’s no longer sporting the blonde hair.

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