There was nothing wrong with Madeleine Peyroux’s concert at Strathmore on Friday night that a few vibrant changes of pace couldn’t have fixed. Well, maybe that and a longer opening set by fellow singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, who kicked off the evening with her delightfully subversive brand of pop — clever, cutting and comforting by turns. When she stepped out from behind a piano and stood center stage, idly strumming a ukulele, McKay could have passed for a fresh-faced descendant of Arthur Godfrey — albeit one who grew up hoarding albums by a wild assortment of artists and eccentrics.
As engaging as it was brief, McKay’s performance proved a hard act to follow. Embarking on a fall tour, Peyroux seldom seemed entirely at ease onstage, and the emphasis on moody ballads and blues shuffles created a lulling sameness midway through the show. In fact, at one point, after bursts of polite applause began to routinely punctuate the evening, Peyroux told the crowd she was eager to lift its spirits with something more upbeat. Alas, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” not exactly a peppy tune, didn’t do the trick. Still, Peyroux was in fine voice, backed by a versatile quartet that served her well right through the encore.
When she released her first solo album 15 years ago, critics greeted her with bouquets and brickbats. Some described her voice and phrasing as sublimely reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s delivery; others called her act derivative and soulless. Peyroux has since developed a songbook — and a soulfulness — she can call her own, and though Holiday’s behind-the-beat influence is still readily apparent, her interpretations are often distinctive and intriguing.
Playing an acoustic flat-top guitar, she and her band turned Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” a song built on a handful of elementary chords, into a languid, jazz-tinged lament. Likewise, Robert Johnson’s Delta classic “Love in Vain” was imaginatively overhauled, so dark and resonating that it seemed tailored for a David Lynch film soundtrack.
As for her own songs, Peyroux mixed old favorites with new compositions, including “The Kind You Can’t Afford,” co-written by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, and the refreshingly bouncy “Don’t Pick a Fight With a Poet.” Her bandmates, meanwhile, provided nuanced support, particularly keyboardist Gary Versace. Besides colorfully underscoring a series of blues grooves on a Hammond B-3 organ, Versace deftly used a melodica to substitute for an accordion when Peyroux charmed the audience with her French repertoire.