Nellie McKay gave a disturbingly distracted performance last night at Spiegelworld on the East River's Pier 17. (The venue itself, while novel and captivating the past few summers, seems to have overstayed its welcome this fall, judging by a) the sparse crowds on an evening before a holiday for many people and b) the amount of discounted tickets being flogged for the three marquee shows: Absinthe, Desir and the Gazillionaire.) We audience members were kept waiting in a line outside of the second tent ("Salon Perdu") for half an hour beyond the advertised start time of 10 p.m. When we finally entered the tent, it was clear that McKay didn't exactly sell out the venue. They'd arranged just enough folding wooden chairs in the center to accommodate those expected; the eight-seater booths around the periphery were closed off. If she'd brought her A-game, we might've remembered it as a lovely intimate show.
Now, I enjoy Nellie's own music, her sprightly piano rap and sarcastic sentimental weepies, if you will, but I'd thought of her as a talented musician in general, no matter whose song it is she's singing, having seen her in concert before. Last night, she looked like a frazzled young piano teacher or harried accompanist who's kept the students or auditioners waiting, complete with a canvas bag of tattered fake books. Right from the beginning it was clear something, or a whole Pandora's box of somethings, was bothering her. Where exactly her mind was, we never found out. All we know is we were treated to an evening punctuated by false starts, abrupt cuts, long awkward stretches of her flipping through the worn-out songbooks in search of this tune and that tune and always her apologizing half-heartedly for her less than stellar stage presence and performance.
M. told me afterward, "I wanted to scream out, 'Spit it out: What's wrong?'" She even went so far as to hint that refunds might be in order for people who requested them. When she was playing and knew the song, mostly old standards and American songbook classics with some of her own thrown in toward the end, Nellie played well. And the uptown Manhattan native did a pretty funny vamp on New York politics in the middle of "Take the A Train" that began something like "My mother used to work for David Paterson..."
We all have bad days at work, but not all of us work in the spotlight, which of course can contribute itself to performers having bad days now and then. But I have to say this is the first show that I can remember where it seemed as though the musician was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown before our eyes. I felt like we were caught in a farce. It produced in me this strange mixture of awkward pity and strange curiosity. We kept waiting for her to blurt out what it was that was slowly driving her mad; it never came. The end of performance did come - before midnight, I think. We clapped, she left the stage, and then we stopped clapping. There would be no encore this evening. Does anybody know what's wrong with Nellie?