Nellie McKay is a petite vocalist with bright blonde hair that offsets her feathery bangs. She wears shimmering, silver-plaited heels. As she softly strums her ukulele, her slender frame, alongside the broad-shouldered Grant-Lee Phillips, recalls Barney Rubble’s “Betty”. This is a peculiar pairing. The already near-packed house is alive with an audience of baby boomers and hipsters. Stragglers shuffle in while McKay joins Phillips for these few warm-up songs before the headliner begins.
The title of McKay’s new release Normal As a Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day is logical. McKay’s voice eerily resembles that of big band singer and actress Day. Her wholesome beauty is also a match. But, the juxtaposition of these contrasting personalities is what I find really intriguing. As Phillips kibitzes with McKay, his self-deprecating humor elicits responses that are innocent and coy. Their odd chemistry results in a Burns and Allen-esque repartee. Some women next to me can’t keep their eyes off the pair, while some men further down the aisle are restless with the stream of banter. One murmurs under his breath, “When’s the music going to start?”
However, as much as I want the pair to plunge into song, I find the dialogue amusing. McKay is from the east and Phillips is from the West. Phillips wears a plaid workman’s shirt and he looks like a lumberjack. Shocks of undisciplined hair prove the point. On tiptoes, McKay traverses the stage like Glenda the good witch. Phillips, currently solo, formerly fronted the Grant-Lee Buffalo band. Now, facing us, he chronicles his outings while here in the Windy City. He mutters observations about downtown skaters, and the stone lions that guard the Art Institute. McKay and Phillips each sing verses from a popular Billie Holiday song, then take turns playing rounds of “air” trombone. A few listeners shuffle in their seats. I’m anxious to hear Phillips deliver the tunes from his new release Little Moon. His voice on the recording demonstrates a breadth of feelings. I’m geared up, as I believe are these fans, to hear his delivery of what he’s well known for, which are lyrics brimming with imagery and detonating emotional truth.
The ethereal introduction to “Little Moon” gives way to an airy interpretation with short cadences and a lilting pentameter. A “calm” develops while he plays. Fingerpicking and a few altered chords create a hypnotic vibe. The progression is so peaceful that I’m tempted to drift off to sleep, but buzzwords like “rocket” and “night” jimmy my senses. Phillips has a penchant for waxing cosmic odes to alternate galaxies. His traditional repertoire features desolate lyrics that tell about the Milky Way or crumbling under an avalanche. Current material drapes politics and children as well.
“Good Morning Happiness” features hard-driving barre chords. The pulsing texture recalls 16-wheel Mack trucks lurching down hairpin turnpikes. Phillips’ voice gets a real workout here — there’s force to his upper register — and though the song has lyrics that are catchy and bright, that same voice imbues an acrid casing when the man maneuvers the escalating bridge. Predictably, the chorus grows happier and happier each time Phillips bellows, “Good morning happiness, it’s a fine day.” I came here tonight hoping to hear this cut. Earlier, I had heard the more heavily orchestrated version on my car’s player. Tonight, I’m excited about comparison shopping as I sit back and take in the unplugged. I’m feeling satisfied with the latter version, though, admittedly, the thump of a lone tambourine might have lent cache to the mix.
In a YouTube video Phillips refers to Little Moon as “The little album that could”. Phillips says he plans to get lots of mileage out of this recording before rushing back into the studio. The set-list tonight is mostly comprised of songs from his new release. It’s good news that Phillips provides a narrative between songs as the moods fluctuate sharply this evening. The audience embraces “Good Morning Happiness” with rapt applause. This steady song has the alluring piss and vinegar of the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine”. I have to admit –– many artists just won’t tackle a happy song. It’s much easier to write about unrequited love and cheating liars. It’s hard to sing happy, but Phillips does it well. “Strangest Thing” has a jangly overbite. Phillips gives lyrical homage to Johnny Cash as he rants. It’s followed by a ‘30s style tale in which the protagonist reassures his friend that it’s not the same old war.
The faithful devotees are here tonight. Whispers swirl around me with references to past concerts years ago. Fans recall Phillips’ Los Angeles days with Paul Kimble (bass) and Joey Peters (drums). With Grant-Lee Buffalo, Phillips produced nine releases, and the band has toured with R.E.M., Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins. Since going solo in 1998, his current catalogue exceeds the body of work he produced in that band’s heyday. He’s worked with the Sundance Film Company, starting with the film Zig Zag and working with composers Mark Isham and George S. Clinton. In addition, he wrote for the National Geographic film Arctic Tale and has scored for TV dramas, What About Brian? and The Return of Jezebel James. He collaborated with Helios Dance Company to pen The Lotus Eaters based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Rolling Stone magazine voted him best male vocalist of 1995.
Major seventh chords rally ‘round this voice as Woody Guthrie-like imagery of the American landscape ensues. A few fans mumble requests, although more are in the immediacy of the moment. A few more grey hairs grace the benches here than I had originally counted. But no matter: the intimacy of the room definitely brings everyone together. Phillips makes quips about Chicagoans scraping ice off their windshields. Some knowing smiles reflect off of the tinsel baubles. His undulating body language reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III. He rarely stands still. “Feathers and Furs” holds the night’s most memorable line, “Waiting for the door to swing open wide like a jailbird’s dream.” Phillips sings about sanctuaries and hidden oak chests filled with buried treasures. If “Puff the Magic Dragon” were in the venue, he’d definitely pull from a hookah.
The club is now completely packed. When Phillips asks if anyone had been to yesterday’s show, some heads nod. The Chicago chill seems non-existent. Here, inside, wainscot and wood form a seductive intimacy. Christmas lights and wreaths cover the walls. Phillips’ efficient and precise guitar work, along with counter strums wedged between the more predictable measures, frame his vocals. The guy loves mornings and sky. He’s also got a penchant for sunrise. McKay’s silver heels grace the stage. The duo sings about rainbows, sunlight and Jupiter. White-blonde bangs sparkle shadows once more alongside Phillips’ brawn. Not so peculiar anymore, they instead look kind of cozy up there — even lived-in. They’ve shared an evening of asides and songs that drip imagery as exuberantly as holiday candles.