Monday, June 7, 2010

A Latter-Day Doris Day?

Singer Nellie McKay, deceptively light as air, is appearing at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I hesitate to use the image for someone who I’m guessing is a pacifist, but Nellie McKay reminds me of a stealth bomber. With her creamy skin, blonde curls, silky voice, and sweet manner, she seems a throwback to … well, Doris Day, to whom she pays tribute in her current show at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency (and also in her CD Normal As Blueberry Pie). Yet McKay has a steely resolve when it comes to such issues as animal rights, the disenfranchised, gentrification, and her own musical integrity. (After a falling-out with Columbia Records, she is on the jazz label Verve.)

At the early show Saturday night, her politics were not much in evidence (she did mention Doris Day’s own animal activism) but her absurdist humor was—she introduced a couple of members of her excellent band (Jay Berliner on guitar, Ben Bynum on drums, Kenny Davis on bass, Glenn Drewes on trumpet, Belinda Whitney on violin) as “the Antichrist” and “the original Anna Karenina” (and that wasn’t Belinda). Wearing a retro black strapless gown with red lining, along with silver pumps with rhinestone bows, she began her set with “Sentimental Journey,” and in a sense that’s what she was taking us on. Along the way—with standards like “Close Your Eyes” and “Mean to Me”—there were overtones of big bands, the 1940s, swing, and Alice Faye, with special dedications to the late Kitty Carlisle Hart, who began playing Feinstein’s in her 90s, and Rue McClanahan, who died last Thursday.

And all of this was beautiful (especially in the swank environment of Feinstein’s)—with such instrumental touches as delicate xylophone on “The Very Thought of You” and violin doubling a vocal line on “Do Do Do.” Still, it was great to have the singer leave her piano and stroll to the center mic with her ukulele for a rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “A World Without Love” and her own songs “Bodega” (“Adopt a bodega!” she urged), “Caribbean Time,” and “Mother of Pearl.” She introduced the last, on its surface an antifeminist diatribe, by saying, “This is from Miss Day’s little-known album Viva Vajayjay.” And ended it with, “I’m Sarah Palin and I approve this message.” (Hmm, maybe I’m a little wrong about the politics.)

There are perhaps not many performers who could blend the sensibilities of “The Dog Song” (“If you want a companion/Well just go right to the pound”) and “Black Hills of Dakota,” but by following her passions and her own musical style, the exuberant McKay has created a lovely, entertaining, beguiling, and even edifying show (pretty stealthy, Nellie).

“Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day” continues through June 12 at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in N.Y.C.