Nellie McKay shuffled on stage Tuesday at the Paradise nearly an hour late carrying a stack of tattered songbooks and sheet music. She piled her papers precariously on the piano and sat down to sing. But nothing came out of the microphone. McKay had missed sound check.
It was a predictably batty start to a rich, captivating set. A blond pixie with a tart tongue and pink chiffon dress, McKay makes witty, issue-oriented music that bridges the vintage sounds of Tin Pan Alley and the subversive sensibilities of the East Village. Thanks to her, the Great American Songbook has a living, breathing present as well as a glorious past.
She charmed with the literate, whip-smart pop gems "Ding Dong," "David," and "There You Are in Me," and provoked with mannered, insurgent rockers like "The Down Low" and "Happy Flower." She tumbled headlong through a bluesy ditty about salvation through canine devotion ("The Dog Song") and programmed a scathingly satirical feminist mini-set ("Sari" and "Mother of Pearl").
Between songs, McKay muttered and rifled through her sheet music, and during songs she inserted left-field comic interludes. "Real Life," a sophisticated song about coming unglued, was interrupted by "The Sylvia Plath Comedy Hour."
A quirky fistful of covers nestled seamlessly alongside McKay's originals. Her pinched, formal delivery of "Prisoner of Love" (dedicated to '30s actress Jeanette MacDonald) at first seemed like a joke; her commanding soprano convinced us otherwise. McKay slipped out from behind the piano to strum electric ukulele on "If I Were a Bell" from "Guys and Dolls," which she sang in a cinematic squeak, and Herman's Hermits's "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," which she sang with an English accent and a huge grin.
McKay's sense of humor can be cutthroat ("If we part/ I'll eat your heart," she promised sweetly on "Won't U Please B Nice") or just plain cutting. "I wanna get married/ I need to cook meals/ I wanna pack cute little lunches/ For my Brady bunches/ Then read Danielle Steele," McKay cooed on "I Wanna Get Married." She's already dressed for the part. Here's hoping she delivers a Broadway musical first.