There's a brightness to Nellie McKay that's hard to describe if you haven't seen her live. Having long been fans of her music a blend of quirky, articulate lyrics with an amalgam of cabaret and pop-song sounds both old and new we thought we'd check out her two-night engagement at the Rrazz Room this week, which was the first she'd ever done at the venue. The show is called "I Want to Live!" and it's framed around the life, arrest, trial, and execution of Barbara Graham, the third woman ever to be executed at San Quentin in 1955.
The show is inspired by the 1958 movie of the same name that won Susan Hayward an Oscar, and such mid-twentieth-century models are perfect for McKay. Her singing style is decidedly old fashioned, with a lilt, pluck, and golly-gosh annunciation of a bygone era. But her voice also suits that style perfectly, and it's made all the more entertaining when it's juxtaposed, tongue firmly in cheek, with a noir-ish tale like Graham's involving heroin addiction and life in prison. As the show progresses, bits of dialogue, vignettes involving her band, and sound effects are interspersed with the songs, and we move between well known pop standards ("I only have eyes for you"), obscure jazz ditties that suit the story, McKay originals, and a Beatles number ("I'm So Tired").
As a singer-songwriter and cabaret artist McKay has been well known in New York for years, performing at venues like Joe's Pub at the Public Theater and Feinstein's, and even making the occasional appearance on the old Conan O'Brien show. She's mostly light-hearted, but isn't afraid to be political, and she's won a small but loyal fan base, especially in the musical theater crowd. But it was terrific seeing her in San Francisco, where her sense of humor and joyous energy are well met. There's irony in what she does, certainly, but mounds of sincerity too, and she is natural and gifted performer who's able to switch between humor, love, and pathos all within a few phrases. We loved, also, her non-musical moments as the cynical, rough-around-the-edges Babs. When her executioner tries to wax poetic while she's about to die, saying "Life's a funny thing," McKay-as-Hayward-as-Graham replies drily, "Compared to what?"
By the time she came back on stage to do a few of her own songs following the close of the 'show,' the entire audience was so clearly entranced and smitten with this woman. Though she may seem like she's just arrived, via time machine, from a supper club in 1948, she seems absolutely at home in the now, and happy to sing a few bars of anything to put a smile on your face.