Show Review: Nellie McKay: “I Want To Live” at The Rrazz Room, 2/28/12

by Dakin Hardwick on February 29, 2012

There aren’t enough artists like Nellie McKay in the world. Stylistically, she sounds like classic jazz pop, but she isn’t afraid to push those boundaries. Unlike many similar artists, her politics are always worn on her sleeve, and she isn’t afraid of offending people. Her records have explicit lyrics stickers on them, yet you wouldn’t realize it if you weren’t paying close enough attention. Which surprised me that she ended up booking the traditional jazz lounge The Rrazz Room, inside the upscale Hotel Nikko.

The Rrazz Room isn’t the type of venue your typical rock audience is used to. It’s a cozy room, all tables and chairs, and the performer doesn’t have the luxury of coming in from behind the stage. The stage is so small that it begs the performer to break through the hypothetical “4th wall.” The entire band walked through the crowd to take the stage, dressed in classic red suits. They warmed up the crowd with Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.” McKay walked through the crowd while dancing, and jumped on stage to dance to the incredibly tight band. She then led the band through an aggressive take on Jimi Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze.”

Now, this isn’t your typical jazz show. This isn’t simply a vocalist with a band going through the standards. This is a concept show that she brought to us once before, and I was there to witness this show back when the show was still in it’s infancy. This is the tale of Barbara Graham, the Bay Area based woman that has the distinction of being the third woman to be executed in the state of California. This production is loosely based on the 1958 film of the same name, I Want To Live. Much of the show is very similar to what we saw about a year ago. The costumes were the same, and many of the songs used to tell the story, but the over all flow has been significantly improved upon.

Although the most direct influence is the film that shares a name with this production, there was another film that seemed to influence this show. This may be unintentional, but I felt that the overall feel for the show was drawn from Ted Demme’s 2001 film Blow. The first part of the show is fun and light. We learn about Graham’s early life as a waitress and prostitute, and it all seemed very light and fun. Even during a witty a capella version of “I Pity The Downtrodden Landlord,” she showed signs of the stresses that brought Graham to drugs and prostitution, but the energy levels remained high.

Graham’s husband at the time of her alleged crime was a criminal and drug addict by the name of Henry Graham, he was skillfully portrayed by her drummer John Sands. In one of the funnier moments, their courtship was expressed through Al Jolson’s “April Showers” and Fred Astaire’s “Isn’t It A Lovely Day.” They flirted while miming shooting up. The acting chops of both musicians was par excellent. They fell in love, married, and had a baby all to the tune of The Flamingo’s “I Only Have Eyes For You.” Sax player Tivon Pennicott portrayed the role of the baby, simply by crying into the microphone during this song.

This brought us to the second act. The crime itself is never portrayed on stage, simply alluded to. We go from “fun” to dark rather fast. McKay goes running from the cops by running through the audience, trying to hide. There is announcer doing a play by play, while the band continues to vamp. McKay gets caught and sings Burl Ives’ “Twinkle In Your Eye.” The song is so bright and cheerful, yet the scene was so dark that the choice of such a happy song made it all the more intense.

The rest of the show depicts prison life for a woman in the 40’s. The band dropped their suits to reveal prison jumpsuits, and they all become significantly more animated. Bassist Alexie Davis took up the role of the alpha prisoner, and generally belittled Graham. There was a hysterical collage of a day in jail done to a prerecorded version of the Brazilian samba “Voce Mi Abandonou.” All through song we saw the trial, the conviction, she read a letter from the DA telling us of a under cover cop being used to extract evidence (!), and we learned of the hours leading up to her execution. In a rather genius moment, we got to see Graham getting teased by the governor with her execution continuously getting postponed all morning, all through the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love.” (Especially pronounced was the refrain “Whatcha Gonna Do When You Get Out Of Jail?”)  By the third performance of the song, you could see the exhaustion in her face, and she muttered the line “I was ready to go at 10 am,” with visible tears.

The show closed the stage flooded in red lights, while McKay did her best Louis Armstrong for Tom Waits’ “Straight To The Top,” while, once again, running through the crowd.

This performance of “I Want To Live” was significantly more refined than before. The overt anti-death penalty sentiment was pulled back, giving the audience room to make it’s own decision, and the entertainment level was dialed up significantly.  We were treated to a far to brief encore of McKay tunes, all done with full band. We were treated to “Toto Dies” from her debut record Get Away From Me. Then we got the classic 70’s lounge of “Beneath The Underdog,” a song from 2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home, a record of her’s that didn’t get the attention that it should have. She then asked the crowd for requests, seeking to know if we want pretty or “with a beat,” only to end up with a split decision. So we got the witty satire of “I Want To Get Married,” which was prefaced with the notion that the happiest people on Earth are married men and single women. Then she did a fun reggae number that gently poked fun at the “hipness” of the leftist movement called “Unknown Reggae.” It was a pleasant teaser for when she finally hits the road again under her own name.

Setlist:

Billie’s Bounce

Purple Haze

Swingin’ On The Reservation

Please

I Pity The Downtrodden Landlord

April Showers

Isn’t It A Lovely Day

They Say It’s Spring

Some Other Spring

I Only Have Eyes For You

Don’t Worry Be Happy

The Down Low

Call The Police

Twinkle In Your Eye

Song For Troy Davis

I’m So Tired

There You Are In Me

Small Day Tomorrow

Chelsea Bridge

Genius Of Love

Ah! The Sweet Mystery Of Life

Straight To The Top

Toto Dies

Beneath The Underdog

Wonderful Guy

I Want To Get Married

Unknown Reggae

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