Apparently last Sunday’s double-bill concert at The Egg in Albany didn’t quite work out as hoped, ticket-sales-wise, so the show was downsized from the Hart Theatre to the Swyer Theatre, which was still no where near a sell-out.
While the smaller theater allowed for a more intimate performance from the audience’s point of view, it was rather over-crowded on the stage. The array of Madeleine Peyroux’s keyboardist Gary Versace included a grand piano, a Hammond B3 and a Leslie cabinet, a synth and a laptop. That’s an awful lot of keys to squeeze onto the tiny stage.
Solo opener Nellie McKay had to carefully thread her way through the vast assortment of instruments, amps, speakers and microphones onstage in order to get to the grand piano, which was situated at such an angle that she had to play with her back to most of the audience.
“I hope the back of my hair looks OK,” she said after her jaunty opening number, “Do Do Do.” She played her first nine songs in that manner, and it’s damned difficult to establish any kind of rapport with an audience when they can’t see your face.
Fortunately, the winsomely subversive McKay came armed with an overload of charm and a bushel full of delightfully quirky and devastatingly witty songs – especially the pitch black humor of “Won’t U Please B Nice” and the Laura Nyro-esque soul-pop of “Cupcake.” And she wisely abandoned the piano for her ukulele and the center stage mic for her final volley of tunes, which stretched from the wry “Mother of Pearl” with its “feminists don’t have a sense of humor” hook and a straight-up reading of Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” complete with an audience whistle-along solo.
Madeleine Peyroux and her band actually seemed to have a more difficult time engaging the crowd, despite the fact that the vocalist-guitarist was anchored front and center. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that she opened with a song sung in French, “J’Ai Deux Amours.”
But she began to win over the crowd with a woozy, off-kilter cover of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” paired with the “The Kind You Can’t Afford,” a bluesy battle of the haves vs. the have-nots that she co-wrote with ex-Stones bassist Bill Wyman.
“I only know two songs: love songs and drinking songs,” she told the crowd, and she was at her best when she fused the two together, as she did with a spot-on cover of Elliott Smith’s bruised ‘n’ boozy ballad, “Between the Bars.”
The highlights of her performance were two more cover tunes. Her dramatic re-invention of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” was a haunting meditation accompanied by Barak Mori’s bowed stand-up bass, Gary Varsace’s droning hum on the Hammond and Mark Goldenberg’s EBow guitar work, accented with Darren Beckett’s rolling cymbals. And her knock-out rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of the World” was a perfect match for her world-weary, Billie Holiday-inspired vocal approach.
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
MADELEINE PEYROUX SET LIST
J’Ai Deux Amours (in French)
Don’t Wait Too Long
You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Bob Dylan)
The Kind You Can’t Afford
??? (in French)
Don’t Pick a Fight With a Poet
Between the Bars (Elliott Smith)
Love in Vain (Robert Johnson)
Standing On the Rooftop
The Things I’ve Seen Today
Dance Me to the End of Love (Leonard Cohen)
I Hear Music
Smile (Charles Chaplin)
NELLIE McKAY SET LIST
Do Do Do
I Wanna Get Married
Won’t U Please B Nice
Long and Lazy River
A Tisket, A Tasket
The Dog Song
Mother of Pearl
Don’t Fence Me In