Zombie sounds: Nellie McKay at the Dakota

Nellie McKay Dakota Jazz Club Sunday, April 6 Review by Jeff Shaw "Toto Dies" live MP3

It not every headlining jazz club artist that does impersonations of what famous people would sound like as zombies. Equally unlikely, it would seem, is for said artist to scream "Die Motherfucker!" at the top of her lungs during one song's breakdown -- regardless of whether that was written into the song or not.

Welcome to the unlikely world of Nellie McKay, whose prodigious musical talents are expressed in elegant, intelligent piano numbers as well as onomatopoeic zombie grunts.

Zombie sounds: Nellie McKay at the Dakota

Zombie has a hair in her mouth!

When singer and pianist McKay is described, she is often compared to two disparate artists. Doris Day and Eminem. Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Ethel Merman and Ani DiFranco. The fact that none of these comparisons is satisfying says much for McKay's work, which is part Broadway and part Compton in its aesthetic.

When we spoke with her last year, she had come through performing Christmas songs with Aimee Mann. This time, she offered the audience a surprise -- three songs from the score to "Election: The Musical." The Reese Witherspoon-Matthew Broderick movie is being developed as a theater piece, and McKay has been charged with writing the music. There could be no more fitting choice to transport the incisive, barbed wit of the film to the stage.

Really, there is no such thing as a Nellie McKay "standard," but the singer ran through multiple favorites from past albums ("David and "Toto Dies" from 2004's "Get Away From Me," gay marriage anthem "Cupcake" from "Pretty Little Head"). These included a raw, inspired version of "Sari," McKay's apologia which contains the aforementioned "Die Motherfucker" line. ("It's perfectly rude and awful," I overheard one woman of a certain age remark to her husband after the song, "but I like it.")

Without a full band, she improvised percussion (often charmingly, as in her piano-top drumming during "The Dog Song"). Sadly, this lack of a full band meant no "Identity Theft," the trumpet-accompanied single from her most recent release, "Obligatory Villagers." Even sadder, she was not accompanied by Schoolhouse Rock voice Bob Dorough, who sings on the album.

But there was record opener "Mother of Pearl," which McKay performed on ukelele. The song demonstrates her enviable skills as a satirist. It is known for its opening line and refrain, "Feminists don't have a sense of humor."

Songcraft gave way to improvisation later in the evening, during the swampy strains of "Zombie." In the waning bars of the Dr. John-meets-Screamin' Jay Hawkins track (there go those comparisons again), McKay began riffing on what famous people might sound like as zombies. If you think Dinah Shore is still as famous as John McCain, that is.

McKay's world does tend to transcend linear time. As the self-described honorary baby boomer flubbed a few lines, a sin for which she was readily forgiven, she explained: "If I seem disorganized, it's not unprofessionalism: it's just forgetfulness."

Good thing her show is unforgettable -- whoever you want to compare her to.

Nellie McKay performs two more nights at the Dakota, Monday, April 7, and Tuesday, April 8 at 7 p.m.

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