Nellie McKay's musical meltdown
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 16, 2004) – Poor Nellie McKay. She’s only been in the public eye for about a half-year since her terrific, critically-acclaimed CD, “Get Away From Me,” was released, and already she is exhibiting signs of unraveling.

With advance word-of-mouth touting McKay as even better live than on recording, the 19-year-old, piano-playing pop singer-songwriter had a lot to live up to at her show on Sunday night at Club Helsinki – a concert, incidentally, that had been sold out for months and for which tickets were gobbled up at an unprecedented rate, according to the club’s owner.

All the more’s the reason that McKay was a huge disappointment. Perhaps she was just having an off night. Indeed, much of her stage banter consisted of protestations that she was dispirited and exhausted from too much travel and the pressures of too much media exposure – too many interviewers’ questions delving into her personal life, particularly her relationship with her mother, who doubles as her manager.

If this sounds boring and self-indulgent to you, imagine how moreso it was not to read about it but to be subject to these tirades when you’re sitting in a club hoping to be won over by the next big thing. On the merits of “Get Away From Me,” McKay promised to be the next Norah Jones, the next Eminem, the next Cole Porter or the next Elvis Costello – or even better yet, some mongrelized fusion of all four.

But with her slurred vocals, wavery pitch control, petulant complaining, poor microphone technique and sloppy piano playing, a tired, distraught, seemingly inebriated McKay came across rather as a cut-rate Mose Allison.

It was a pity, because with a little effort to deliver her artful songs that blend classic pop melodies, Broadway sonorities, and dizzying wordplay – she’s the most promiscuous rhymester since Costello -- the striking McKay, who has the bearing of a 1940s blonde bombshell, could have taken the crowd on a roller-coaster ride through her dazzling artistry.

Instead, it was musical meltdown time, and painfully embarrassing at that.

In contrast, performing in a rare solo gig on acoustic guitar, opener Jim Infantino, the frontman of the wiseguy rock trio Jim’s Big Ego, warmed up the crowd with a fiercely riotous set of his witty, intelligent, often sarcastic rock songs. Pairing up Infantino and McKay was a stroke of genius in terms of their shared, quirky sensibilities. Next time, one hopes, McKay will take a lesson from Infantino and engage the audience with her material and not just her own, petty problems.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 17, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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