TO Jazz Review: Nellie McKay, Becca Stevens Band, June 30, Horseshoe Tavern

Nellie McKay is one of those artists who I just haven’t paid enough attention to. I remember vaguely liking her 2004 album Get Away From Me, but even that never totally captured my attention. And then … I just sort of forgot about her. Yet, to my slight surprise, she’s been releasing albums pretty regularly since then, including a tribute to Doris Day(!) and has even created a musical based on the life of convicted murderer Barbara Graham. So she’s certainly no slouch in the work department. Perhaps she’s been off my radar a bit because of a self-imposed boycott of Canada due to the continuation of the seal hunt. However, as she noted, she’s not quite at the level of Paul McCartney or Morrissey and so perhaps her boycott wasn’t having quite the impact she’d hoped it would. Still, it’s great that she’s standing up for something.

McKay is nothing if not opinionated. She’s a quirky and charming performer, albeit one with a bit of a biting sense of humour and a definite political edge. So while she can do a cutesy song about her dog one minute, she can also turn a trio of British Invasion covers into a commentary on the role of women in society or introduce a song by cheerily announcing, “In honour of Canada Day, here’s a song about the tar sands!” There was a fair bit of satire on display throughout her set, most notably during the hilarious “Mother Of Pearl.” I also really enjoyed how, while singing a couple of a capella songs from a project about environmentalist Rachel Carson, she sort of skipped over parts of the songs, preferring instead to describe them rather than sing the whole thing. Also funny? Introducing her version of “Don’t Fence Me In” as “a song about illegal immigration.”

She ended her set with “Sari,” a song she said she wasn’t planning on playing, but decided to after a shouted request from fan in the back since she “asked so emphatically.” That song ended with her screaming at the top of her lungs, dropping the Judy Garland-esque persona from earlier in the set and suddenly channelling Sam Kinison. So yeah, Ms. McKay, you’ve got my attention again.

Also catching my attention was opener The Becca Stevens Band, who impressed with their blend of the jazzy and the folky. Stevens has a strong voice and a charming onstage demeanor. I feel like she was smiling throughout their set. The Brooklyn based band offered up a couple of memorable covers, namely Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” and The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” They were down one man, having lost their accordion player at the border. “Not in a bad way,” clarified Stevens, “We just left him at a gas station at the border.” One presumes they left him there with his consent and didn’t just ditch him there, but it would be funny if they just drove away on him, laughing and pointing as they did so. Or maybe that’s only funny to me. Who knows. Still, they impressed me (in some ways, I enjoyed their performance more than McKay’s) and I’d be interested in seeing what they can do with the full band configuration.

Posted on by Paul in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival