“Start off with the saddest thing you know / Then you’ve got your audience / Then it’s all your show.” Thus begins The Ballad Of Hollis Wadsworth Mason Junior, one of many highlights of Franz Nicolay‘s Tuesday night show at the tiny Brixton Windmill. Apart from being “the best mariachi tribute to a retired superhero ever written” the opening line perfectly surmises Nicolay’s style of songwriting and performing.
Until very recently Nicolay was the keyboardist of The Hold Steady but his solo work couldn’t be much further away from the rock sensibilities of the Brooklyn band. Now with a solo EP and LP behind him he’s taken to a three week tour of Europe to unleash the indie-cabaret act to which he is far better suited.
For most of the set Nicolay stands resplendent behind his vintage microphone in a suit and hat with a full beard topped with the twirled moustache of a silent movie villain. Nicolay is a storyteller and an entertainer in the cabaret and vaudevillian tradition of his heroes. Each song contains characters and events one might suspect of being at least half true, and the tales are infused brilliantly with equal measures of cunning wordplay, comedy and pathos. He addresses the audience in a familiar tone and regales with banter about the inspiration for each song, usually stopping mid song at least once or twice as an apparently random thought pops in to his head.
Before, during and after the song Jeff Penalty, Nicolay tells the small but enthusiastic crowd about the time he supported The Dead Kennedys, who were at the time fronted by Jeff Penalty rather than the iconic front man Jello Biafra. Through conversational interludes and the song itself we hear the tale of how the at first sceptical crowd and support acts came to appreciate Penalty’s efforts.
The Woah Oh Oh chorus of the song sees a sing-along moment, the first in a series of audience participations which transcend cheering and light hearted heckling. Another such moment comes in the aforementioned Ballad. Before the solo Franz requests everyone help keep tempo with handclaps while he belts out an admittedly great run on the squeezebox. Rhythmic clapping turns to wild applause. As well as being an emotionally engaging storyteller he is also a singularly gifted multi-instrumentalist.
The final song of the night, and apparently almost every night in Nicolay’s shows, is a tribute to the late, great Jimmy Durante, a personal hero of Nicolay’s. He plays the banjo and covers the waltz classic Hi Lili, Hi Lo. During the final moments of the song he unplugs his banjo and steps away from the mic and on to the floor to sing the final verse and chorus.
As he does, the sweetness of the moment inspires two couples to join in and begin waltzing across the floor. It gets crowded and clumsy down the front, but the ramshackle confusion is a perfect fit for the show, which has been an almost anarchic and freeform tribute to musicians, lovers and heroes.