[Somewhere in the back of Nellie McKay’s mom/manager’s station wagon is my little Staples yellow spiral notebook—or else it fell out of my pocket when I rather dizzily stumbled out of the car when they dropped me off at 45th and 8th Ave. after Nellie’s remarkable—even for her—show late Friday night at the New York Uke Fest May 29 at Baruch College. So I can’t guarantee that what follows is entirely accurate. Then again, if I had the notebook I probably couldn’t have read my writing anyway: Basal thumb joint arthritis, that and my naturally horrific penmanship. Plus a new fat pen I’m trying to get used to. About the only thing I can say for sure is that the back seats were down in the car to make a perfect travel bed for Nellie’s dog—so I kind of rolled around a lot. And I did play with the doggie toy—despite mom/manager’s admonishment. And if what follows isn’t 100 percent true, well, it’s close enough.)
I had to leave the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s May 29 performance of “Onegin” at City Center—and New York ITAR-TASS bureau chief Vladimir Kikilo and assorted other Russian dignitaries—midway in order to catch Nellie McKay’s 10:30 show at Baruch College, where she was headlining the opening night of the New York Uke Fest May 29.
Uke Fest? Nellie McKay?
No doubt the greatest musical talent of her generation, Nellie usually performs solo, accompanying herself splendidly on piano (the last time I saw her, though, she spectacularly led a swing band for last year’s Midsummer Night’s Swing series at Lincoln Center). She often ends her gigs with a ukulele tune.
I got to the venue on time, but the Fest’s organizer determined that Nellie hadn’t. Contractually, she was supposed to start at 10:30, but she hadn’t arrived by 10:20, when the preceding act, Hawaiian songstress Mihana, finished. So the guy, while noting that cell phone service in the auditorium in the lower levels of the building was limited, told the packed room that he had not heard from Nellie, declared her a no-show, and “dismissed” the attendees an hour early.
I don’t know how many people were there to see Nellie specifically. Probably not too many, though she’s for sure well-known in some circles for her incredibly original three albums (the first two being double-disc sets), her endearingly delightful performances, her award-winning Broadway turn as Polly Peachum in “The Threepenny Opera,” her contributions to The New York Times Book Review, and her award-winning dedication to animal rights and other tireless involvements in various causes.
But I was there to see her (I also corralled old friend Jim Beloff, a former fellow Billboard staffer and now one of the uke world’s foremost players, authors and manufacturers, into attending), and utterly dejected when the guy outright canceled the gig. An opportunity to see the wondrous Nellie McKay, suddenly withdrawn with no explanation: Was she ill? In an accident? Stuck in a stalled subway car?
Worried and weary, I ascended the four flights of steps slowly (chronically torn ankle tendons more sore than usual), head down, making my way to the exit without looking up at the handful of Uke Fest folk hanging about by the door. Still looking at my shoes, I had turned the corner and was nearing the subway when I saw the beautiful golden flats moving purposefully in the other direction, followed them up a bottom-fringed, black flapper dress to the mouth of the striking blond who could only say, “Oh, hi,” as she continued onwards, preoccupied but without any concern for the time. That’s how she always is before a show.
So I turned around and followed, still dazed, unable to react further. How could I tell her her gig had been canceled because they thought she was a no-show? “She’s always late!” manager/mom would bellow moments later in an angry showdown with the organizer, “But she always shows up!”
I had to find some way to lift up Nellie’s obviously sagging spirits after I finally mumbled out the news of the cancellation. As usual, I dramatically fell to the occasion—muttering inaudible gibberish as I led her down the steps to the auditorium. Manager/mom met us at the bottom, and became understandably irate when I filled her in on the situation.
Essentially, it was a culture clash. This was a folk music festival, really, with Nellie the only artist to have recorded for a major label, appeared on Broadway, and have high-powered (Creative Artists Agency) booking. They expected Nellie to have been there hours earlier, hanging out with the other artists and supporting them during their gigs—not at all unreasonable had she in fact been a folk artist at a folk festival. And as it turned out, Nellie’s camp had tried numerous times during the day to reach the organizers to find out the logistics (and make sure I was on the list), but as had been noted, cell phone signal down there was nonexistent, and the guy apparently hadn’t bothered to check his messages.
Different levels of professionalism—and different interpretations.
But the now empty room was still open: Nellie was there, I was there, and so were a mother and son from a town near Tel Aviv who were staying over an extra day just to see Nellie and hoping the now annoyed and embarrassed organizer would allow her to perform—even to the dozen or so who had been slow in leaving. So I snapped into what for me passes for action: I ambled over to the handful of uke players who were jamming folk-festival style just outside the auditorium and informed them that Nellie was indeed present and about to play, then did the same for the few remaining stragglers along the way. Maybe there were 30 people altogether who returned to the hall, some with their own ukes—which they played along with Nellie and with her encouragement.
She began with the lilting “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” which was sung by Leslie Caron in the 1953 musical “Lili”–with a puppet (it was also recorded, by the way, by sweet Gene Vincent). In the same standards vein, she did “Side By Side” and “Don’t Fence Me In,” the latter I know best from cowboy music conservationists Riders In the Sky, whose vocalist/guitarist Ranger Doug Green moonlights in the Time Jumpers, a popular Nashville swing band that Nellie said she saw on a recent trip to Nashville. She also did “P.S. I Love You,” which she performed—also with uke—on the soundtrack of the 2007 film of the same name, in which she also starred. (She told a funny-sad story, too, about how she took a movie-related meeting in L.A. at the Judy Garland Building, now the home of Adam Sandler’s production company, that is plastered with huge posters of Sandler—and one tiny picture of Garland.)
But as impressive as the standards side of Nellie’s uke-work were her 1960s song choices. These included “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” Herman’s Hermits’ broken-hearted chart-topper from 1965, sung by Nellie in appropriately melancholic English accent with her singing the backup parts as well; Peter and Gordon’s 1964 Beatles-penned chart-topper “A World Without Love”; and The Seekers’ 1967 No. 2 hit “Georgy Girl,” the titletrack of the 1966 English movie hit written by Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom Springfield, with lyrics by Jim Dale—with whom Nellie starred so many years later in “The Threepenny Opera” (also with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper). Here she expressed her awe of Dale—and did him justice by singing the song replete with its sprightly instrumental intro (approximated vocally by singing a string of “bob-bob-bob” syllables).
She sang everything beautifully and with utmost poignancy—as her set list demanded (except for songs like her own caustically tongue-in-cheek “Mother of Pearl”). The recipient in 2005 of the Humane Society’s Doris Day Music Award for her support of animal rights, she also revealed that her next album will be a tribute to Day, whom she praised in a scholarly New York Times book review in 2007. (But please, Nellie. Do a swing album with that band you put together last year at Lincoln Center! Do it for me!)
She ended with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditiation,” then graciously thanked everyone who had stayed there for her, when others had lost all hope.
[Sure enough, Nellie’s mom Robin just called and said she found my notebook in the back of the car with the doggie toy. And sure enough, she couldn’t make out one word in it. So I couldn’t ask her what the complete quote of Nellie’s heartfelt good-bye line was, but it was something like this: “In this filthy rotten city, you brought smiles.”]
[Also, it dawns on me that I might have been too cute for my own good here. My title comes from The Stooges classic song “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” And calling the late, great rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent “sweet” is a reference to the late, great rock ‘n’ roller Ian Dury’s “Sweet Gene Vincent.”]
[Update: Just got my notebook in the mail from Robin! She sent it in a big envelope sprinkled with colorful commemorative postage stamps (Edgar Allen Poe, Medgar Evers, Abraham Lincoln, Bette Davis, Lunar New Year, Gee’s Bend Quilt), a heartbreaking PETA “Animals in Laboratories” sticker and a beautiful peacock sticker. She also had a Human Rights Watch address sticker. So here’s Nellie’s actual goodbye line: “Thanks for coming! You make this big rotten city smiling and rosey again!” And the mother and son were from the Tel Aviv area town of Savyon, one of the wealthiest municipalities in Israel. He was getting ready to move here to go to school and had learned of Nellie from the Internet and then turned his mom on to her.]