It’s a little room, smaller than the smallest theater in a suburban multi-plex, where Maria McKee performed Friday night. Although every seat was filled, the crowd at McCabe’s Guitar Shop couldn’t have been more than 200 people. It’s almost crazy: How could a performer with so much talent be presented, how could she be available, in such an intimate setting?
Maria McKee is only 42 years old. She is still in her prime, some 22 years after the hyped debut of Lone Justice, her original band. She has an opera singer’s range and power. She masters songs that are sometimes fiendishly complex, poetic and emotionally overwhelming. She skillfully accompanies herself on piano or guitar. She looks like she could do this for another 25 years. There is still time for you to hear her.
Onstage, McKee is nervous and obsessive, but has a sense of humor about it, stumbling around trying to read her set list, find a water bottle or fix a broken strand of jet. Then she starts up a song and… I can’t think of any apt comparison. Aretha Franklin? Bruce Springsteen? Patsy Cline? Elvis Presley? Janis Joplin? Maria McKee is as good a singer as any of them, as good as anyone I’ve ever heard, including Beverly Sills and Renee Fleming.
McKee called herself a “dilettante,” and joked that because of problems wrangling her instruments, her shows in Europe from night to night changed styles, from Broadway to folk to power-trio. But what that really means is she can sing anything and make it authentic. Some of that’s due to her musical pedigree, but mostly it’s because her voice and stylings are so compelling, she transcends any genre.
Back in 1984-5, I had no problem with the Lone Justice/Maria McKee hype. I probably added to it, my enthusiasm the beat of a butterfly wing that swirled into a hurricane. I stumbled across Lone Justice one night in that brief period when L.A. nightclubs were teeming with great bands that defied radio fashions. Oh my God, who was that singer? She was 19, spooky-pretty, and when she opened her mouth, it was the loudest thing I ever heard, louder even than Captain Beefheart, who was so loud my ears leaked. Lone Justice was a “cowpunk“ band when it started — metal twang. The guitars were fierce but McKee had no problem being heard over them. I figured I had discovered the next big singing star, the next great band.
Lone Justice put out an album that had all the songs I’d learned from watching them a few times, but the album did not capture what I recalled hearing. Then they put out another one that didn’t sound remotely like what I’d heard; in fact it sounded like the quintessential tinkly-synth crap I was trying to escape. Then Lone Justice broke up, and Maria McKee disappeared for awhile.
In the early 1990s, McKee started up a solo career. Her first couple of albums were better than the Lone Justice albums, but still didn’t give me what I was looking for. How could all these different producers and record-company executives not understand her talent? Or maybe she was someone you had to hear live and live only. A lot of the other LA bands I loved also didn’t translate that well in the studio — the Blasters and X in particular. I figured that was McKee’s problem, too.
She says it’s because she didn’t really care enough about being a star to make herself into one. But who are the big pop divas of the past 20 years? Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Beyonce — all of them talented, but all of them using an overdramatized style heavily dependent on melisma, defined as “the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a single syllable of text while it is being sung,” but that you all know as the “woah-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-eee-ohhhh.“ It’s showy but totally unmusical.
Maria McKee, by contrast, has a natural vibrato, perfect pitch and rhythm, and respect for the lyrics. She’s dramatic too, but authentically so. She wrings emotion out of the words, not a roller-coaster ride. Which means her style was out of fashion. McKee was the ultimate flowering of the folk/rock/soul style — think Linda Ronstadt, but much better — and she arrived too late. I think she would have been huge if her first album had come out in, say, 1969.
But for talent like McKee’s, it’s never too late. She will eventually find an audience, and in the meantime, she is building a distinctive body of work for her future fans to obsess over. Time is on her side. From all appearances, McKee has not lived a decadent life. I doubt she smokes; her voice is too pure, her skin so smooth she bragged about it onstage, swearing she hadn’t had plastic surgery. She takes care of her instrument. The melisma style will eventually get old, and, with a little luck, McKee’s style will come back in fashion.
The concert was my wife’s Father’s Day gift to me. I bow down to her! We hadn’t been out together alone for awhile. We’ve been in a sort of bunker for the past few months awaiting the big news that turned out to be good news. This was our first chance to be free, to be ourselves, to dress up a little and have fun, in a long time. Well, Nicky looked pretty anyway. I’m the guy who gets mistaken for Michael Moore. Anyway. What a performance to see on your coming-out party! Nicky has been following Maria McKee’s career as long as I have, and is actually a more knowledgeable fan. I only recognized about three songs, while she recognized about half of them. On the way home, driving through the beach cities on a cool, soft night, we couldn’t stop talking about what we’d seen. It still seems unbelievable.
The opening act, the Willard Grant Conspiracy, is worthy of another post that I’ll probably never write. Or maybe I will after I hear their CD. That’s how good they were: I didn’t just buy two McKee CDs on the way out, I bought the opening act’s too. That alone is high enough praise.
Oh, and there was a celebrity sighting: Gary Shandling. Exactly who I figured to run into!
P.S. Listening again, the Lone Justice albums and McKee’s solo records sound a lot better than I remember them. I don’ t want to leave the impression you shouldn’t listen to them; you should. I applied too high a standard to them when they came out.
P.P.S. This article, a recent piece in Paste, describes McKee’s current artistic focus, and her successful collaboration with her husband Jim Akin, who accompanied her on bass. She discloses she has “rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.”
P.P.P.S. I just found this MySpace fan tribute page. Some great video clips are collected here.