Leave it to Nellie McKay to bring some of the best songs of the 1960s together, first on her wonderfully named new album My Weekly Reader, now on her shows last week at 54 Below, where she performed those songs and more.
That McKay can do anything is long established, what with her 2009 Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day album and last year’s brilliant 54 Below cabaret piece, A Girl Named Bill–The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, which included both period music from the ’30s and ’40s and originals. At Friday night’s show (April 17) she was backed splendidly by her band the Cosmic X-Rays (bassist Alexi David, guitarist Cary Park and drummer Kenneth Salters), with McKay herself playing grand piano, electric keyboard, ukelele, a small Greek baglama lute, tambourine and harmonica: She even played Dylan-style harp on a rack around her neck while strumming on My Weekly Reader‘s cover of The Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball”—her harp play here sounding like Dylan’s “I Want You”—and by the way, she also performed “Clothes Line Saga” from Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
Surprising as the album song selections are, the set’s non-album material was even more so. McKay’s “Hello Hello” featured her jaunty piano play on the 1966 Sopwith Camel classic, and when she sang the central line “Would you like some of my tangerine?” she made it sound completely convincing. Canned Heat’s hit “On the Road Again” had her perfectly reimagining Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson’s high tenor pitch while turning the verses into a big band call-and-response. And she was appropriately emphatic on Gene McDaniels’ much-covered antiwar diatribe “Compared to What.”
Likewise she was rightly scornful on album track “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” originally Frank Zappa’s cynical Mothers of Invention rant against the “Mr. America” establishment. Her version of Moby Grape’s “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” was embellished with contemporary phrases like “Hands up,” “Don’t tase me,” and of course, “I Can’t breath.” And while she also performed the Country Joe and the Fish character sketch “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” she roused the SRO room with the non-album Fish 1967 standard “The ‘Fish’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” getting open-throated audience participation on its famous four-letter f-word cheer, full appreciation for its timely lyric variation adding Iraq and Iran to Vietnam.
McKay followed “Fixin’-to-Die” directly with The Beatles’ “If I Fell,” from My Weekly Reader, which she produced with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who also produced her first album Get Away From Me, from which she performed “Inner Peace”—proof positive that she’s not really a child of the ‘60s after all.
But it sure seems so. And for all the right reasons.
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