Only in Nellie McKay's world does Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" become a song about illegal immigration.
"Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above," she sang, gently strumming a ukulele. "Don't fence me in."
That's McKay in a nutshell. She's an uncommon blend of bite and sentiment. She's both wise and a wiseass.
The young pop-jazz singer performed at San Francisco’s The Independent on the heels of the release of her fine third CD, Obligatory Villagers. "Yellow is my favorite color," shouted an audience member as McKay walked on stage wearing a sunny dress and carrying a stack of music books. "That means you’re chicken," McKay shot back before sitting down at the piano to open the show with "In a Sentimental Mood."
Songs from the new CD were sprinkled throughout the solo performance, which also included plenty of material from her earlier albums. She sang audience favorites, "David," "Food in the House," and "Pounce." Her singing and piano playing were in top form as was her funny bone, sometimes all at the same time. On "Mother of Pearl," a song off the new CD, McKay got in some pointed licks. "Feminists don’t have a sense of humor," she sang in a song oozing with irony. "Feminists just want to be alone. They say child molestation isn’t funny."
Thoroughly original, McKay writes songs with timeless melodies, sings with the easy grace of a 1940s band singer, and comments on current social and political issues with the take-no-prisoners attitude of a stand-up comic. She was introduced as the next president of the United States.
At one point, she urged the audience to think sad thoughts. She offered a few ideas: Ann Coulter petting a puppy and Dick Cheney’s smile. Her commentary was a hit in San Francisco, but it might not be as warmly received in more conservative areas of the country. Not that McKay is going to change. She fought her former record label over her second album before releasing it on her own.
The thing with McKay is that she can have you chuckling to a funny line or a whimsical number, but she is never too far from knocking you out with a jaw-dropping gorgeous song. When the crowd began calling out song suggestions, McKay thought about them for a minute, put the requested originals aside, and delivered a beautiful version of "Walkin’ After Midnight." No one was complaining.
On "Zombie," another tune from the new CD, she stood at the microphone, singing along to the musical track while doing a series of zombie dance steps. It was a riot, but McKay made sure that wasn't the lasting impression people had of her. She closed the evening by delivering a perfect version of Herman’s Hermits’ "Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter," and those sweet notes are what lingered in the air as people went home.