Nellie McKay performs at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York City. (Photo from a 2010 performance by Amy T. Zielinski)
Nellie McKay Occupies Feinstein’s:
Tin Pan Alley Environmentalism In The Belly Of The Beast
(NEW YORK CITY – MARCH 23, 2012) Hearing Nellie McKay sing about Rachel Carson at Feinstein’s on March 22 was like watching a Michael Moore movie at a Goldman Sachs board meeting.
The evening didn’t start well. In line was a couple complaining about how they’re always there and they just can’t understand why they don’t have their usual table and blah blah blah blah. (“We’ll seat you at Mr. Feinstein’s personal table, ma’am.” Ugh.) Everyone had fur on and the place looked like the set of a 1940s mob movie, except for the very modern prices. Given the announced program for the evening — a musical revue about an environmentalist — it seemed that something must have gone horribly wrong.
But it took just a few minutes into the first song to see that if a joke was being played, McKay was definitely in on it. Her subversive set of activist-inspired protest pop would have found a friendlier audience in Zucotti Park, but part of the genius of the show was that people in furs paid $40-70 each plus a $25 food-and-beverage minimum to have someone criticize their existence while playing a ukelele.
Rachel Carson was a pioneering environmentalist whose book Silent Spring galvanized the nation in support of protecting natural resources. McKay’s revue (“Silent Spring — It’s Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature”) was part biopic, part polemic, part iVictrola playlist of music from the Tin Pan Alley era.
McKay never stopped smiling for the entire show, except during the few occasions when it was appropriate for the narrative. But the smile seemed to be directed as much at her band or at Carson’s hovering ghost as at the audience members eating $15 plates of lettuce. This was cabaret for the endtimes, which is appropriate given that global warming means the piano at Feinstein’s will likely be underwater during McKay’s lifetime once the Atlantic Ocean reclaims the isle of Manhattan.
The evening’s song selections included a host of standards, from Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” and Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” to “Ten Cents A Dance” by Rogers & Hart and “Lazy Bones” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. But in between these more Feinstein’s-appropriate numbers were surprising choices – Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” for example, both probably being performed for the first time on that particular stage.
McKay also included several of her own compositions. They were among the strongest performances of the night, even given the illustrious songwriting company mentioned above. Her puckish humor and coquettish delivery were perfect for the deadpan (is it deadpan if you’re always smiling?) punch to the stomach she delivered with the story.
The story followed Carson’s life from childhood to her death in 1964 at age 56. Along the way, McKay used props, recorded dialogue and live acting to tell the story of Carson’s evolution from a nature-loving child to a Washington bureaucrat to a popular author and crusading environmentalist. The biographical elements of the story weren’t overly detailed, often hinting at the elements of Carson’s life rather than providing specific descriptions. At times, the songs served to fill in the gaps, although often they were as much to create a mood or illustrate the time period as they were programmatic devices.
McKay ended the revue with a James-Brown-inspired performance of “Let’s Do It,” complete with the Godfather of Soul’s patented drop to the stage and cape-assisted exit. The cape, by the way, had the initials “RC” on the back.
McKay then ran back on stage and performed a joyous version of her reggae tune “Caribbean Time.” Incredibly, she got the Feinstein’s crowd to join her in a call-and-response section. Never have so many men in bow ties sung “oh-ee-oh.”
The revue is an excellent idea, well executed. It deserves to be heard by a wider — and more ecologically minded — audience. But kudos to McKay for having the guts to perform this music in the belly of the beast.
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VIDEO: Here’s McKay performing “Caribbean Time” in 2010:
NOTE: Photo of Nellie McKay as Rachel Carson by Rick Gonzalez.