It's been nearly nine years since Nellie McKay followed The Dresden Dolls onstage as part of a Sunday afternoon bill at the ASCAP Music Café during the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Talk about cultural whiplash! Visually it was not unlike Marie Osmond arriving on the heels of a Marlene Dietrich tribute band.
That's not really a good analogy. Maybe if Dietrich had punked-up her dominatrix-look a bit more during her Weimar-era cabaret shtick. The Dolls certainly flaunted that vibe successfully. Not that they weren't a groovy sight to see but they would have had to tone it down some just to be bizarre.
Anyway, this knockout blond girl that was dressed to the nines and looked as if she might have been on her way to a red carpet gala somewhere certainly seemed out of her element when she strode onto the small stage at the old Plan B on upper Main Street. I seriously contemplated taking up cigarettes again just so I could slip out the back door for a smoke break.
The Kings of Leon had closed the joint down the previous afternoon and those of us who were regulars were glancing at each other rather quizzically. We weren't in the mood for anything we deemed not up to the artistic level to which we'd become accustomed. It was the ASCAP Music Café after all.
Ok, if she hadn't been so stunningly arresting in appearance, I'm sure I wouldn't have pre-judged her. How sexist was that? What was I to assume? That she had the complete package? That she actually had something to say? That she'd turn out to be quite possibly the hippest and most enjoyable performer I'd caught in quite some time.
Her self-penned songbook possessed an oftentimes-whimsical but always serious radical side that would have made Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Howard Zinn, Utah Phillips, and Tom Morello proud. Her glamour get-up turned out to be just her way of saying that not all intellectuals of the female persuasion need to dress like the beat generation. If she was aiming that particular epiphany my way, her aim was true. She had me with "hello."
Suffice to say that, over the years, I've caught her on YouTube a few times and my friend Teri Orr nudged me toward her TED videos which are every bit as inspiring and creative as I imagined they would be. She has one of the quickest minds I've ever come across and her disarming smile punctuates some of the most sophisticated and savvy one-liners you'll hear anywhere.
Anyway, the reason I'm going on-and-on about her is that she is returning to Park City this coming Saturday evening for a performance with the legendary Turtle Island Quartet at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. This is music from a very high shelf!
The TIQ is a string quartet that has never met a musical genre it didn't like. From classical, they have evolved into master performers of jazz, Cajun, blues, rock, pop, standards, bluegrass, swing, be-bop, funk, R&B, new age, and hip-hop, as well as music of Latin America and India.
There's not too many acts out there that can have their way with the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix and still have chops left over for the likes of Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn. And the same goes for McKay. She "gets" everything!
The Turtle Island Quartet has been stretching the boundaries of what string ensembles are all about for nearly thirty years. As Cellist Yo-Yo Ma puts it, they are "a unified voice that truly breaks new ground authentic and passionate a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today."
Naming their tour after the Strayhorn standard "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," McKay and the TIQ have been traveling the country paying homage to the music made famous by the aforementioned composers along with original material of their own -- shaping evenings into musical sculptures that connect the brain with the heart.
It must be remembered, however, that any show featuring Nellie McKay will be personality driven no matter what the set list. And what a personality! She'll have us eating out of those come-hither ukulele-picking piano-plunking dog-petting hands of hers in no time at all.
But it's her smirk and wink and smile and voice, the tilt of her head and the turn of her ankle, the spaces in her songs when she's setting us up for an unexpected punch line. A caveat here, Nellie McKay does not telegraph her punches. Whether a jab or a roundhouse, you'll never see it coming. But no worries. She's only trying to wake us up.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.