McKay merrily mixes scrappy and wry

Nellie McKay (performing in Northampton in 2007) played Doris Day tunes and more at the Regattabar Friday. Nellie McKay (performing in Northampton in 2007) played Doris Day tunes and more at the Regattabar Friday. (Caleb Kenna for The Boston Globe/File)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / February 15, 2010

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Nellie McKay was probably the only pop singer in town this past weekend who dedicated a song to Mary Daly and Howard Zinn.

Friday night at the Regattabar, the singer-songwriter gave props to the feminist and the historian prior to her satirical “Mother of Pearl,’’ which takes aim at those who would take aim at the alleged humorlessness of humanists. And only she, while jauntily strumming a ukulele, would throw a goofy dance break into such a song.

That collision of astutely acerbic and unashamedly ecstatic is what makes McKay such a unique talent. She’s like champagne: The surface is both distingue and bubbly but there’s a tart undercurrent that promises as much of a high as the hardest liquor.

Assisted expertly by drummer and percussionist Ben Bynum, McKay drew the bulk of her 75-minute show from her latest album “Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day.’’

The two blondes may be separated by generations of sound and cynicism, but McKay understands the steely reserves that underpinned her idol’s happy-sunny-corny image. It’s the bedrock of her own Tin-Pan-Alley-with-an-edge style. (The women also shared a mutual love for animals.)

McKay covered Day’s career from well-known hits like “The Very Thought of You’’ - complete with charming xylophone licks - to her movie songs, including a spare voice and drums rendition of “The Black Hills of Dakota.’’ She also unearthed a few lesser-known tracks like the scrappy “Do Do Do,’’ to which she offered her best trombone-like vocals and jaunty piano work.

A few other folks got tips of the cap, including Ella Fitzgerald - with a spirited run through “A-Tisket a-Tasket’’ - and Peter and Gordon, with McKay revisiting their melancholy ’60s pop gem “A World Without Love.’’ Although its tuneless songbirds and cloud-obscured moons are antithetical to Day’s image, McKay mused that given her turbulent real life, it might’ve been an appropriate song for Day.

Although a late-in-the-show rundown of her coterie of animals and their respective personalities - one pooch apparently sounds like a Latina Joan Crawford - was a bit long-winded, the overall effect was charming. Several of McKay’s own songs got a workout as well, including “Pounce,’’ a giddy little ditty about her kitties, and the wry “I Wanna Get Married.’’

At: the Regattabar, Friday.