the part: Nellie McKay.
PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle
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.
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