Nellie McKay & Madeleine Peyroux: Don't Pick Fights with Poets
Two contemporary American songwriters--Nellie McKay and Madeleine Peyroux--on the same bill at the acoustically fabulous Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Maryland September 30, 2011. The Dresser was psyched for this concert.
Nellie McKay opened. Thirty minutes, eight and a quarter songs mixing her originals (e.g. "I Wanna Get Married" and "Adios") with oldies like "Don't Fence Me In" and "If I Had You." She entered, curtsied in a dimly lit corner of the stage, and seated herself between an organ and piano with her back to the audience--this keyboard arrangement was set up for Peyroux's keyboard man Gary Versace. Before she started to set the keys on fire with "Toto Dies"--she's a remarkably outstanding pianist, she turned to the audience and said deadpan, "I hope the back of my hair looks OK." By the second song, it was clear when the audience laughed at her Danielle Steele line from satiric "I Wanna Get Married" in Get Away from Me, a standout double album released in 2004 as her first album
I wanna get married
Yes, I need a spouse
I want a nice Leave it to Beaverish
Golden retriever and a little white house
I wanna get married
I need to cook meals
I wanna pack you cute little lunches
For my Brady bunches
Then read Danielle Steele
that this audience had never paid attention to her lyrics before or possibly did not know her work.
At song three, "Mother of Pearl," she emerged from the shadows to stand in a spot at a mic. She played her ukulele. Then the Dresser could see her bouffant black skirt and greenish sparkly top, but also her dance antics, which she has honed for this particular song of social criticism. Here's a video of this song done live at the 92nd Street in New York City.
Most folks who have heard her music--and maybe unaware that they did so on such TV shows as Weeds, Grey's Anatomy, NCIS, and Nurse Jackie--probably don't know she is or has been a sometimes actor and stand-up comedian. In 2006, McKay played Polly Peachum in the Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera and she won a Theatre World Award for that role.
In song four "Adios" from her latest album Home Sweet Mobile Home, she turned serious, but how she delivers serious borders on hysterics in her giddy language of "hypocrite heathens," "rinky-dink Eden," and "Frankenstein lady," an allusion the Dresser guesses to be the gothic novel's author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.
If time runs like a river
I saw my people bathed in blood
And if the faithful find the sinners
I'll have to leave all I loved
Goodbye, O hypocrite heathens
Goodbye, O false paradise
Goodbye, O rinky-dink Eden
And may you lie yourselves to sleep
We're marching through the madness
With not a soul about to see
We're moving through the fortress
Chasing the ghosts of anarchy
Goodbye, my Frankenstein lady
Goodbye, O pagan delights
Goodbye, and good riddance, baby
And may you lie yourselves to sleep
She also performed "Beneath the Underdog," (also from Home Sweet Mobile Home) which is dedicated to Troy Davis, the convicted killer of a police officer and the man recently executed by the state of Georgia. The song, which includes the lines "I found a kind of friend in you/It wasn't pleasant all the time," seems to refer not to the man who was on death row, but to her interest in animals, especially her own dog. "So settin' off from this hill camp / I'd rather be her little tramp / My own companion / Or maybe with one whose tail is waggin' "
In ending her concert with "The Dog Song," she reaffirmed how her pet gives stability to her life. However, she also did something else to cap her performance and that was to answer a request for "Happy Flower" from an audience member (presumably not a ringer). Her first reaction was to say comically, that she didn't know her own music and therefore couldn't do the song spontaneously, but she rethought the request and worked in a couple of stanzas as an impromptu introduction to "The Dog Song."
Then without fanfare and taking a little bow, again in the same dimly lit corner of the stage without any spotlight, she left the stage. Had the Dresser not heard Nellie McKay at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, January 23, 2006, the Dresser would suspect the authenticity of this performance. The Dresser would also be furious with Madeleine Peyroux for trying to diminish her warm up act who should have been given more time on stage. However, McKay knew what she was doing and most of what she does is part of her act.
As the featured artist taking 90 minutes, Madeleine Peyroux performed something over a dozen songs with Gary Versace on keyboards, Barak Mori on bass, and Darren Beckett on drums. She said upfront that she intended to have fun with this group of musicians and intimated that she would be jamming with them. Like McKay, she sang a mix of original songs new and old but also a couple of songs in French. She opened with a signature Bessie Smith song "Don't Cry Baby" and closed with Alfred Newman's "Smile though your heart is aching." Her encore was Josephine Baker's "J'ai Deux Amours." For the Dresser, Peyroux hit the arc of her performance when Gary Versace with a melodica and the other musicians formed a semi-circle with her to do a song one could imagine hearing on a corner in France (singing on street corners in Paris is how she started) followed by "Don't Pick a Fight with Poet," a catchy song with a Latin beat from her latest album Standing on the Rooftop.