SF Sketchfest Review: Nellie McKay with Tom Brosseau at The Verdi Club on 1/25/2014

by Dakin Hardwick on January 26, 2014

Nellie McKay at The Rrazz Room, February 2012

Nellie McKay at The Rrazz Room, February 2012. The drummer and bassist did not come with her this time.

It’s been 4 long years since the last time Nellie McKay has released an album of original material. The last few times she’s come to California, she’s performed “I Want To Live,” a retelling of the story of Barbara Graham, the third woman every executed on death row through modern pop songs. It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten to enjoy a set of Nellie McKay songs done by Nellie McKay. I was both surprised and delighted to see her on the Sketchfest line up doing an “all music” set. So excited that it was the first show I bought when Sketchfest tickets went on sale, and I’ve been waiting for this day for six weeks.

We were treated to a 35 minute opening set by North Dakota folk singer Tom Brosseau. His down home, folksy demeanor, skilled finger picking, and warm voice was a pleasant way to start the show. His set was one part original music and one part storytelling. They stories were mostly comical, telling stories about small town life in North Dakota, what it’s like to move to LA from there, and a few tales enjoying Olive Garden or the ashes of dead folk singers. He definitely balanced the comedy and music nicely, and I would love to see him do a full hour.

Nellie McKay came out to an announcement over the speakers informing the crowd that McKay is fresh from rehab and making her first performance since getting out. She then popped on stage with a book of sheet music and a ukulele, wearing an adorable gold dress. She sat down at the piano and without skipping a beat or addressing the room, she plucked two Doris Day numbers: “Sentimental Journey” and “A Wonderful Guy,” the face paced “Inner Peace” from McKay’s amazing debut record Get Away From Me, and the Johnny Mercer conservation anthem “Midnight Sun.” It wasn’t until the fifth song in the set where she turned around and addressed the crowd. She said hello, and introduced the Ella Fitzgerald classic “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” with a tale of a time that she addressed a delegate of Brits by telling them that she approves of colonialism. Her performance of the song was magnificent, incorporating the vocal stylings of both Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong during the performance of this standard.

She then moved over to the ukulele. I’d like to think of McKay as one of the torch bearers of the modern day uke comeback, along with Amanda Palmer and Garfunkel & Oates. She played an incredibly amusing medley of “English” songs that included two Beatles songs and a Searchers song (“Georgie Girl”) that people often confuse for a Beatles song. Midway through, she popped out the delicious one liner “Fashion has the same root as fascism,” and began switch out English public transit terms with Bay Area terminology. (The Tube became BART, etc)

Despite being a set of mostly standards, McKay made sure to keep her politics at the forefront of her performance. When introducing “Long Lazy River,” she made sure to point out her disapproval of Gov Jerry Brown’s use of hydrofracking. She introduced “I Wanna Get Married” as a song about her dream of marrying Ralph Nader. She even closed out her main set with a performance of “Mother Of Pearl,” a song that is both pro-feminism and mocks elements of feminism at the same time.

I do all in my power to never miss a Nellie McKay set. She is one of the finest performers of our generation, bridging the gap between vintage pop and modern politics with a wonderful sense of humor about it all.


Sentimental Journey

A Wonderful Guy

Inner Peace

Midnight Sun

A-Tisket, A-Tasket

Don’t Fence Me In


A World Without Love -> Georgie Girl -> I’m So Tired

Long Lazy River

I Left My Heart In San Francisco -> When You’re Going To San Francisco (Wear Flowers In Your Hair)

I Wanna Get Married

Ones On The Way

Mother Of Pearl


Caribbean Time

Ding Dong


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