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Nellie McKay & Madeleine Peyroux: Don't Pick Fights with Poets

Peyroux.jpgTwo 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." Nellie McKay.jpg 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. Melodica.png

In experiencing her in closer proximity to her musicians, the Dresser realized that Peyroux seemed very uncomfortable on stage for most of the performance except when she was close to her playing partners. Initially, this made the Dresser think that this singer was better suited to the privacy of a recording studio. However, after watching numerous videos on YouTube, the Dresser believes that Peyroux was having trouble connecting to her audience. This is unfortunate because DC area audiences tend to be over-the-top supportive and always eager to give performers standing ovations, which the Strathmore Music Hall patrons did of course. So maybe the problem was there had not been any practice time for this group of musicians and without connecting fully with them, she could not relax enough to enjoy her audience. But, hey, the Dresser could be entirely wrong and maybe the street singer in her just wanted to be at a different corner.

Overall, Peyroux's stylized bluesy singing that features emotionally charged glissandos paired with clarity of enunciation was consistently evident in this concert but lacked a vital spark of energy. Therefore her performance of Elliott Smith's "Drink up Baby," Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," and her own songs "Standing on the Roof Top," "The Things I've Seen Today," and "Don't Wait Too Long" (these songs preceded Newman's "Smile," the last song of the performance) all seemed to be at the same level of intensity and without differentiating verve.

Don't get the Dresser wrong, she would drop everything and run the next time the opportunity comes up to hear Madeleine Peyroux--only not in a big place, maybe a dark cramped club would be so much better for this singer-songwriter who puts on no airs, except in the way she breathes.


'When you're walking on the street,
and the people that you meet,
make you want to start a big fight,
'cause they talk as if they're so right.
There is one thing to remember,
in case you haven't heard:
You can kill a mighty emperor,
but you cannot smite a word.

So, don't pick a fight with a poet.
Don't raise your hand on a whim.
Whether it's wrong or it's right,
there's a lesson in life,
and to learn it, you have to give in,
cause the poet knows you can't win.

When you're twitching at the bar,
No one knows who you are,
and you want to prove them all wrong,
you think you are so strong.
You can try to make them listen.
You can try to be the boss,
but the storyteller is the one
who calls the toss.

So, don't pick a fight with a poet.
Don't raise your hand on a whim.
Whether it is wrong or it's right,
Whether it's wrong or it's right
there'll be a lesson tonight,
and to learn it you'll have to give in,
'cause a poet knows you can't win.

Over there in the corner with a Cheshire grin
making rhyme out of broken hearts
cryin' the hymn.
And two tokes from a good time,
a toast away from fist flying,
congregating the world
with a paper and pen.

Don't pick a fight with a poet.
Don't raise your hand on a whim.
Whether it's wrong or right,
there's a lesson in life,
and to learn it, you'll have to give in,
cause a poet knows, you can't win.'

Lyrics by Madeleine Peyroux & Andy Scott Rosen

Copyright © 2011 Pennywell Productions, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Nellie McKay


Comments (2)

Adele Brown:

This is great! Nellie looks like a young Doris Day. I got a kick out of "I want to get married." Nellie McKay and Madeleine Peyroux are going on my watch list--would love to catch them.

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