Nellie McKay live at the Collective Encore review

McKay should be better known, but the audience at the Collective Encore relished every moment of her concert.
Nellie McKay at Wesley Stace's Cabinet of Wonders
Nellie McKay at Wesley Stace's Cabinet of Wonders / Al Pereira/GettyImages

About a third of the way into her ninety-minute set on Saturday night, Nellie McKay asked for requests from the audience. One fan sitting right next to the stage immediately called out “More Zappa!” That’s because McKay – who Variety once described as an “anything-but-modern swing band chanteuse,” had just played the very first song on the very first Mothers of Invention album – “Hungry Freaks, Daddy.”

A few songs earlier, she had opened her set with the 1945 Doris Day smash, “Sentimental Journey.”

From Doris Day to Frank Zappa and back again. That’s what you can expect to hear from Nellie McKay.

The New York-based singer released her spectacular debut album. Get Away From Me, 20 years ago, when she was 21 years old. She has continued to write new music over the past twenty years but has devoted more of her creative energy to reinterpreting popular songs of the 20th century. That was evident at the Collective Encore in Columbia, Maryland on Saturday. Though she did play five songs each from Get Away From Me and from 2023’s Hey Guys, Watch This, more than half of her set was devoted to covers.

Nellie McKay does not fail to entertain

In addition to Frank Zappa and Doris Day, McKay covered Rogers & Hart’s 1935 hit “My Romance,” Hoagy Carmichael’s 1937 “The Nearness of You,” and the 1933 Johnny Green/Edward Hyman song “I Cover the Waterfront."

She didn’t confine herself to sultry jazz from the ‘30s. McKay never confines herself. She also sang an array of ‘60s rock classics including Hermans Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” (with a full-on British accent – McKay is half British), Country Joe and the Fish’s Woodstock hit “Fixin’ to Die, Rag" (with Iran and Afghanistan standing in for Viet Nam), and Crosby, Stills & Nash’s apocalyptic “Wooden Ships.”

She served up a medley of British invasion with “World Without Love,” “Georgy Girl,” and “I’m So Tired,” as well as some of her concert staples – a slinky, jazzy “Murder in My Heart for the Judge (Moby Grape), and a sprightly “Red Rubber Ball,” (Cyrkle). She switched from her versatile Nord Stage 2 keyboard to ukelele and harmonica for that last one.

As entertaining as her gallop through the last hundred years of pop music was, McKay remains at her incisive best when she performs her own originals. The songs from Hey Guys, Watch This like “The Party Song” still reveal the sharp, witty, and transgressive singer from 2004 – “I went to a party, stayed there twenty years one night – There were bright balloons, a pale monsoon of decadent delight.”

And her political observations, especially in the way a patriarchal social order plows forward unchanged, are still out in the open. “Initiation,” from her latest album, isn’t as angry as the in-your-face disgust of “It’s a Pose” from the debut. But it remains just as pointed – merely, sadder that all these years later, we are still fighting these battles.

In addition to being a standout songwriter and singer, McKay is an exceptional keyboard player. When she dives in on the faster, trickier hip-hop song “Inner Peace,” she blows it out of the room. With a flick of a switch, she is playing a psychedelic organ on the Zappa tune, or a harpsichord on the Rogers & Hart. And she can use her piano as percussion on the crowd-pleasing “The Dog Song,” or as an ironic counterpoint on the sweetly vindictive “Please Be Nice.”

Speaking of “The Dog Song,” McKay used it as a bridge to talk about one of her pet issues – animal rescue. Channeling the late Queen throughout the song, she offered the audience advice on adopting Corgis.

She also interrupted her rendition of “Georgy Girl” to comment on the line “Why do all the boys just pass you by – Could it be you just don’t try or is it the clothes you wear,” noting that the root of “fashion” is the same as the root of “fascism.” That’s the feminist Nellie McKay.

Fortunately, as a performer, McKay is so endearing, compassionate, and funny that her commentary never comes off as pedantic or heavy-handed, (like the men in her song “It’s a Pose.”)

“What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!”

Next. Worst Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ever. Worst Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ever. dark

Any performer who can slip that into a song like “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” is going to provide you with a fun evening. With Nellie McKay, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Washington, DC’s Sara Curtin opened Saturday’s show with a seven-song set that included all four tracks from her lovely new EP and a surprise visit from her Sweater Set partner Maureen Andary.

I was going to open this review by saying something to the effect of “If the world were just, Nellie McKay would be as popular as Taylor Swift.” I decided to skip that because I read a virtually identical line written by Mark Hudson of in his review of a McKay concert in Albany a year ago. Apparently, Nellie McKay is inspiring at least two reviewers to lament the relative anonymity of one of our finest singer/songwriters.

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