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Dressing the part: Nellie McKay.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

High Concept

By Paul Rapp

Nellie McKay

Club Helsinki, Jan. 4

I love the idea of Nellie McKay. Young, brilliant, the complete maverick, the savior of music (!!!) as the legend goes, she stuck it to her record company at the age of 20, and now makes these eclectic, unique, often foul-mouthed records with free- association, politically-barbed scattershot songwriting that encompasses much of the last 100 years of American songwriting. She’s also in theater, in movies, writing in The New York Times Book Review! Wow! You bet I’d put her on top of the list of role-models for my teenage girls, not that the competition there is particularly fierce these days.

But maybe the idea is better than the reality. At Helsinki Friday night we got a distant, glum little person, who barely looked at the audience, at one point saying, “I see you and I’m ashamed,” leaving us to wonder, well, WTF did she mean by that? She doesn’t relish the attention? She talks with Terri Gross on NPR and a month later can’t believe she’s playing an 80-seat room?

You know how Springsteen can play an arena and make the person in the last row of the upper deck feel special? This was the antithesis of that.

Oh, the songs were great but the performance was workmanlike at best. She sang in a fluttery soprano, sounding so much like an old 78 you could almost hear the pops in the record; she sang in a perfectly believable Irish brogue. Her voice is pliant, elastic, her piano playing strident, and her wordplay is often astonishing, but she rarely brought anything forward that hasn’t already been revealed on her recordings. All too often, it just felt like an unrehearsed run-through, with McKay reading off of sheet music—sheet music of her own material.

She wore one her now-trademark ’70s polyester bridesmaid dresses, this one in a hot rose sort of color. I suppose that the dress is a statement of some kind.

But by the end of the show on Friday I really didn’t care what it was.

Acting Up

Guy Davis

The Eighth Step at Proctors, Jan. 4

In the world of the blues, perhaps the strangest crossroads of all is the intersection of down-home acoustic-guitar fingerpicking and the daytime soaps, where stands the handsome and endlessly entertaining Guy Davis. The 55-year-old son of late stage-and-screen actor Ossie Davis played Dr. Josh Hall on One Life to Live from 1985 to 1986 in addition to other thespian endeavors, before turning to a musical career as a bluesman in the 1990s. Frankly, both his contemporaries John Hammond Jr. and Paul Geremia can play circles around him on guitar. But Davis’ acting skills, on full display last Saturday night during his engaging presong monologues and bits of clowning for a sellout crowd at the Eighth Step’s new home (the 100-seat Upstairs at 440 theater at Proctors), served to remind that good looks and superior showmanship can more than make up for less-than-virtuosic picking.

Davis, sporting a porkpie hat and a gray vest over a red shirt with casual slacks, and performing seated, mostly offered material from both famous artists like Muddy Waters to obscure ones like prewar delta bluesman Isham Bracey in the first of his two sets. His opener, Bracey’s “Saturday Blues,” set the tone for many—in fact, too many—of his songs: left foot stomping around 100 beats per minute, and playing simple but cleanly executed alternating thumb guitar parts that seldom ventured above the first five frets of the fingerboard.

Although his voice was a little hoarse at first, he sang well in a smoky baritone, and his rack-mounted harmonica, heard later in the set, was on the money. When he played Charles Brown’s “Driftin’ Blues,” he started off by holding a single high note on the harmonica for as long as he could, and drew laughter when he checked his watch toward the note’s end. He frailed the 5-string banjo for a novel version Muddy’ Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” but like his guitar work, his banjo playing was fairly basic.

Davis’ second set consisted largely of originals, of varying quality. Among his best songs was a field holler recorded by Leadbelly for which Davis wrote a guitar part. It sounded like an English folk revival song—haunting and musically unpredictable. On the other hand, his risqué “Chocolate Man” was a blatant rip-off of the country blues chestnut “Candyman.” Nobody seemed to notice, though, and when he got to the line “You can eat my bonbons two at a time,” a chorus of women in the audience boisterously registered their enthusiasm at the prospect.

Guitar chops aside, show biz is all about entertaining a crowd, and Guy Davis, sometimes minstrel, sometimes jester, aced it.

—Glenn Weiser

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