From the moment she burst onto the scene, way back in 2005, Nellie McKay has been proudly out of step with the times.
A devoted student and aficionado of sounds created well before she was born, the 33-year-old, New York-based singer-songwriter is as far afield as one can get from the attitudinal divas dominating the pop charts.
Put Nellie next to Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift, and she’d probably slice them down to size with an eye-roll and a quip worthy of Bella Abzug.
All of which is to say the size of the crowd McKay drew to the Granada Theater Friday was as disappointing as it was unsurprising. (McKay is to radio airplay as oil is to water.) There might’ve been 100 people in attendance — the balcony was roped off — seated and watching in respectful silence.
It was like attending a house concert — the house just happened to be the Granada Theater.
The woefully small crowd should not suggest Friday’s show wasn’t superb, because it was.
The indefatigable McKay (pronounced mack-eye) is touring behind her latest studio album, My Weekly Reader, a Day-Glo digest of covers from the Summer of Love.
Performing alone and accompanying herself on piano, Hammond organ and ukelele, the cheerful McKay spent 90 minutes putting her own spin on ‘60s singles both familiar (the Beatles’ If I Fell; Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Wooden Ships) and less so (Frank Zappa’s Hungry Freaks, Daddy; Country Joe McDonald’s Janis; Gene McDaniels’ Compared to What).
One of the evening’s running jokes was her introduction of several songwriters as being from the area: “Little known fact: Jim Morrison was originally from Dallas!”
McKay’s renditions were largely faithful, which, given her affinity for tweaking conventions and societal norms — “This is a song for all the little mom and pop [stores], so please boycott 7-11,” she said prior to ¡Bodega!, from her 2010 LP Home Sweet Mobile Home — was slightly surprising.
The music slipped easily between pop, jazz, soul, blues and folk, rarely staying put for long — McKay’s formidable chops and her lovely, multi-octave voice deftly held together all the tonal shifts.
There was also a sense of the past informing the present, as McKay’s progressive politics are in lockstep with her artistic sensibility. Despite her declaration of love for Ralph Nader before playing I Wanna Get Married Friday, that tune, from her debut, Get Away from Me, positively drips contempt for feminine subservience. (She also dedicated her take on Shel Silverstein’s darkly comic One’s on the Way to Planned Parenthood.)
Indeed, none of it would have the charm and sense of whimsy it does were it not for McKay’s exceedingly dry wit and her light touch. She’s clearly having some fun at her own expense, even with the most lacerating lines — her own Mother of Pearl, opens with the lyric “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor.”
Yet, the longer Friday’s concert went on, it began to seem as if McKay, performing songs, of her own and others, brimming with intelligence, bite and vitality, wasn’t the one whose perspective was out of whack.
Maybe it’s everyone else, having lost sight of what truly matters when it comes to music: having something genuine to say, and doing so with inimitable style.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713