Nellie McKay is a true treasure. Seriously folks, ever since I stumbled upon her album way back in 2004 in a music thread on an old comic book forum (jinxworld to be exact), I’ve been absolutely smitten with McKay. Songs full of everyday troubles mixed with political jabs, McKay’s point of view is exactly what we need today. Thankfully she has never stopped making music, embracing her magnificent voice and performing subversive songs that sound like classic gems.
While the show was scheduled to start at 8pm, Chicago traffic decided to put a wrench in those plans. While most Chicagoan are used to the wild variability of our drivers, McKay certainly was not. After an announcement that she was still on her way, the show wouldn’t actually start until 8:465pm. In the mean time I made conversation with those around, finding out how they discovered McKay’s unique voice. Despite being in the younger demographic of the crowd, it seemed that most of the audience were relatively new fans. They were more familiar with her covers than her original songs or her work with a vaudeville show with Bill Irwin and David Shiner. It was an interesting collection of fans, all eagerly anticipating her arrival.
When she did finally arrive to Old Town School of Folk Music, she wasted little time. She quickly apologized about her tardiness and instantly dove into her set, which ended up being primarily request based. After the first song and upon the announcement, members of the crowd began gently yelling out their favorite songs. “Cupcake” was followed by “Dog Song” and the crowd was instantly in her grasp. With such identifiable songs being played right off the bat, you could tell McKay was going to have a ton of fun with the night.
The setlist saw McKay switching from piano to her ukulele every few songs. She delighted fans with covers like Doris Day’s “Meditation”, Mimi and Richard Fariña’s “Bold Marauder”, to original masterpieces like “David”, “Ding Dong”, and “Suitcase Song”. Every song had the flair you’d expect from McKay: part joking, part serious, but all all fun and slightly off kilter.
Between songs she would banter with the crowd, expounding on her beliefs with jokes as sarcastic as some of her songs. Clearly one of the funniest lines of the night occurred in the middle of the set. “I’m such a Commie. I’ve never paid for anyone to clean my house. But I don’t clean it either. So I live in filth.”
As the years have passed, McKay’s songs have seemingly grown all the more important and relevant. The surreal and melancholy trip in”Ding Dong” tackles a myriad of modern day troubles. “Sari”, a song that is a definite departure from her more traditional vocalist repertoire, was a much needed sound for sore ears. The track is a pseudo rap song written at the height of the Bush administration and yet evokes an unfortunate timelessness. “Sari” is a perfect distillation of McKay’s viewpoints as she battles for women’s rights and individuality, pushes against conservative views, denounces meat eating, and more. The song surges with McKay’s utter passion. If anything it sounds angrier and more exasperated nowadays, Fifteen years of fighting the same fight with the sarcastic chorus apologizing for all the wrong things she’s done by just living. It’s a cutting song that has remained a favorite in her discography, highlighted by furious “die motherfucker!” that we need to yell sometimes.
Another great highlight in the set was her quick medley of Beatles songs that crashed down with a riproaring rendition of “I’m So Tired”. That song is a personal favorite of mine and McKay dug deep into the song and snarled all the right lines for a magnificent performance. There is no doubt that this set was a great snapshot of McKay’s versatility and vocal prowess.
Nellie McKay’s encore came in the form of “Ridiculous”, a call and response song that forces the audience to boo and jeer her as she sings about basic quailty of life wants and needs. In the middle of the songs she went on a spiraling monologue/conversation between herself and her imagined version of Bernie Sanders. It was a strange trip down her ideals, discussing healthcare, Harvey Weinstein, and more. It was strange and overlong, but undoubtedly Nellie McKay.