NELLIE McKAY with SIMEON ROSS at the El Mocambo, March 25. Tickets: $10. Attendance: 250. Rating: NNNN
A mere month after releasing her ambitious two-disc debut, Get Away From Me, next big thing Nellie McKay already inspires the kind of devotion from her fans that's usually reserved for larger-than-life icons like Madonna. This could be because, like Madge and Bette Midler (who also launched her career playing gay bars and piano lounges), there's something about the 19-year-old phenom that seems tailor-made for homosexual men. Is it her sassy vintage threads? The charming sexual frankness coming from the mouth of a teen? Perhaps it's her penchant for campy show tunes, or the caustically dry, Noel Cowardish wit of her lyrics?
Whatever the case, last Thursday's sold-out show at the El Mocambo was packed with Will & Grace (and Will & Will) couples, many of whom made bizarre professions of undying love (one man even creepily announced his intention to have the poor girl's abortion) throughout McKay's set.
What's weird is, on disc McKay doesn't warrant such obsessive fan behaviour. While Get Away From Me is an impressive debut that showcases her lyrical smarts and astounding breadth, it's one disc too long and often precious.
Despite rumours that her recent South By Southwest showcase was less than impressive, the live context is where McKay really dazzles. From the dramatic flourish with which she cast off her duster jacket when she took the stage to the smart one-liners she fired back at the crowd, the precocious nymphet completely captivated the club.
She had the entire El Mo singing along - in three-part harmony, no less - to the Mandarin hook of Work Song, a complex number about 9-to-5 drudgery that sounds like it dropped out of a Kurt Weill musical. Even the barflies in the back angrily hushed each other when McKay launched into more intimate ballads like David (an unrequited love letter) and Manhattan Avenue (a torchy tribute to the Big Apple). I've never experienced such reverent silence during a crowded bar show.
Her marketers aren't doing her any favours, though. Comparisons to Eminem and Norah Jones do her a total disservice; her rapid-fire spoken-word segments are less rap than really smart observational monologues, and although there was a healthy contingent of beard-stroking yuppie couples sipping Chardonnay in the bar, her tunes are way too edgy to be lumped into the adult contemporary piano jazz category.
With biting, irony-soaked social analyses like I Wanna Get Married, the anti-SNAG (sensitive New Age guy) It's A Pose and Clonie, McKay has more in common with the pioneering lounge musical comedy of bawdy proto-feminist Rusty Warren, whose late-50s track Knockers Up demanded that ladies honour their sexual appetites.
The question now is whether McKay can take her virtuoso act beyond a cult following and get even mainstream pop fans singing along to her anti-hegemonic critique.