It’s rare to go to a concert by two very talented musicians and leave thinking that the highlight was a spoken word performance, but that is what happened Saturday night at South Orange Performing Arts Center at a show featuring Loudon Wainwright III and Nellie McKay. Towards the end of his set, Wainwright recited a column penned by his father for Life magazine. The article was about euthanizing the family dog, and it paid tribute to the dog and what he meant to the family. It was not only a beautifully written piece, but was performed with such authority that the show briefly turned into something you might expect to see from an actor or a great poet, not a musician.
It was not entirely out of place. Wainwright is a singer-songwriter who has been performing for almost 50 years, and the delivery of his lyrics throughout the whole night was masterfully executed. Whether going for a laugh (many of his lyrics are humorous) or something more serious, he leans into his vocal and truly performs. Musically it is a stretch, but at times he reminded me of Bruce Springsteen just because of the conviction with which he sings.
His set was punctuated by David Mansfield, a multi-instrumentalist from Maplewood who has collaborated with Wainwright since the early 1990s. He joined about halfway through, playing violin and mandolin, and you got a sense that Wainwright was truly happy to have him onstage. Mansfield, who joined Bob Dylan’s touring band in 1975 when he was 18 years old, is a fantastic accompanist, and added a refreshing dose of musicality to songs that are largely simplistic in terms of chords and melody.
Still, the lyrics always took center stage, and the material often focused on the Wainwright family, with a new song about travelling together on a family tour of Alaska along with their fans, and a song about Rufus Wainwright’s conception called “I Knew Your Mother.” But the most gripping moment was the recitation of his father’s article, and it left the audience stunned — so much so that nobody clapped when it was done, for fear they would interrupt the moment.
The one sour note of the set was a loose parody of the classic “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” entitled “I’ll Be Killing You (This Christmas).” Introducing the song, Wainwright softly said “It seems I have to sing this song every few months,” acknowledging the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon this week. The song, with lyrics about having a Bushmaster rifle on a holiday wish list and lighthearted jabs at the NRA and the 2nd amendment, seemed in poor taste; I’m usually a big fan of things in poor taste, but the song suffered from not being funny enough to overcome such a serious and sad subject.
Last night also featured an inspired choice for an opening act in Nellie McKay. Both Wainwright and McKay lean towards lightly funny songs, but their delivery is completely different. Where Wainwright stands firmly in the folk tradition, McKay seems to embrace every musical genre but folk music. An accomplished pianist, she played stride piano, lounge jazz, pop and just about everything short of world music … and folk.
Supporting her new album My Weekly Reader, a collection of songs mostly from the ’60s, she played an exceptionally diverse set, ranging from a straight reading of The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” to original songs like “It’s a Pose” and the Loretta Lynn hit “One’s on the Way,” played on ukulele. She almost dares the audience to stay with her, as she moves through such different genres of music.
One highlight was a version of The Doors’ “People Are Strange,” done at the piano. While being perfectly capable of playing flashy, virtuosic riffs, she kept it sparse and haunting, accenting the lyrics only occasionally with dissonant trills. It is one of the classic rock songs that defines “overplayed,” but she made it sound fresh and vital.
Perhaps most enjoyable of all was that both Wainwright and McKay share an element of fearlessness that made for a great night of music. They are both unafraid to do whatever they wish, and don’t seem to play anything out of obligation to their audience. Instead, it is the listener’s obligation to stay with them, and that always makes for a far more interesting concert.
Wainwright performs at one of Wesley Stace’s “Cabinet of Wonders” shows at the City Winery in New York, Oct. 9. Visit CityWinery.com. McKay opens for the Madeleine Peyroux Trio at BergenPAC in Englewood, Nov. 11; visit BergenPAC.org.