It seems strange to suggest that Atlanta's Variety Playhouse would be too big of a venue for a show. Most nights, audience members find themselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder, crammed by the force of the surrounding bodies closer and closer to the stage, faces nonetheless upturned with rapt attention toward the evening's performer.
Although the crowd at was no less engrossed on this night, when Manhattanite piano pixie Nellie McKay appeared at the Little Five Points venue (her first foray into the south), the house was considerably less packed. With café tables and chairs set up on the floor of the venue, McKay's audience was afforded something novel for such a hip locale - a little elbow room. While the relatively low turnout was a shame on a very basic level, since McKay is both a fantastic songwriter and performer, the small crowd actually made the night all the more special for the few proud attendees.
As always, McKay refused to limit herself to one genre, moving seamlessly from socially-aware pseudo-rap to sultry jazz numbers to upbeat piano-pop selections, each infused with her ebullient wit and preternatural, worldly insight. Often referring to songbooks of her own material, McKay found herself tongue-tied on a few of the more rap-heavy pieces, but blew it off with a smile and a toss of her Marilyn Monroe-esque coif.
It was impossible to hold such gaffes against her though, so stellar was the rest of the performance. McKay could make even a monstrous venue feel like a teeny East Village coffeehouse with her bitingly poignant lyrics and instrumental virtuosity - not to mention her often tangential between-song banter. On this night alone, her rants ranged from the importance of spaying and neutering pets to championing an Atlanta vegetarian restaurant, where she'd had lunch that afternoon.
Delivered in person, even the selections that seem infallible on CD took on new life on stage. "Clonie," a blithe ditty exploring the wonders of having a genetically identical life companion, and "Cupcake," a deceptively sweet ode to the battle for gay marriage in the United States, seemed especially right at home alongside kitschy classics like "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "It's A Long Way to Tipperary." Most of the set list came from her 2003 Columbia debut, Get Away From Me, with a few selections thrown in from her much-embattled second album, Pretty Little Head, a squabble over which prompted her split from Columbia in early 2006. (Officially unreleased at the time of the concert, McKay has since announced that she will be releasing the full 23-track version of the album on her own Hungry Mouse label in collaboration with spinART, on October 31.)
McKay ended the night with an encore, after re-emerging from backstage apparently wiping tears from her eyes, as the audience cheered and clapped. After launching into a seven-song medley of tunes new and old, originals and standards, she politely declined a shouted request to “Stay forever!”– though, for just a moment, it seemed like the Little Crowd That Could would be so lucky.
Nellie McKay’s Official Website