Defying Categorization, Nancy And Beth Mix Up The American Canon And Throw In Some Showbiz
The name of the band is Nancy And Beth though neither of the frontwomen lay public claim to being either.
Megan Mullally, who has won two Emmys playing Karen on “Will & Grace,” and Stephanie Hunt, best known as Devin on “Friday Night Lights,” sing in harmony, move in unison and wear the same costumes. Their eponymous debut album was released in 2017; a second is slated for next year.
“Because of the name, some people think that we are playing characters, Nancy and Beth, but we’re not,” explains Mullally, on the phone from her LA home, with Hunt joining in from Austin. The group plays at City Winery on Sunday, May 12. “It feels like it because everything’s choreographed and the band wears matching outfits. But it’s just us in a band that has a lot of showbiz elements.”
Mullally says that, secretly, the women have determined who is Nancy and who is Beth. But, "Nick Offerman does not know and no one else is going to ever know. Nine [interviewers] have tried and nine have died so you wouldn’t get the answer.”
Offerman is both Mullally’s husband and Nancy And Beth’s roadie. The comic-actor introduced Mullally to Hunt when he and Hunt were filming “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in 2012. Mullally goes into rapturous detail about Offerman’s roadie skills, from last-minute cable fetching to expertly stitching a Velcro patch to Hunt’s pants so her mic pack would stay affixed. Also, Mullally adds, “He fills a very integral function on stage which I will not divulge, but there’s a certain part of every band’s show where something has to happen that’s not necessarily a song.”
Nancy And Beth’s music fits loosely into the Americana genre — if you stretch the term to encompass pop, jazz and blues standards from multiple points of the 20th century. They also opt for the oddball hybrid definition “punk-vaudeville.”
“We’re in a band that defies categorization,” Mullally says, “but last year a fight broke out in the audience during our last song and we thought, ‘Now, we are officially punk. Undisputed.’ ”
And — again, despite the name — Nancy And Beth are not a duo. They front a group that includes keyboardist-singer Datri Bean, former Decemberists violinist-singer Petra Haden, guitarist-singer Roy Williams, bassist-singer Andrew Pressman and drummer Joe Berardi.
“It is a band,” says Mullally, “and I think we treat it as such. It’s a band that just screams things at you. It screams Cher’s opening act, but then again it also screams Laurie Anderson’s opening act, so figure that one out. There’s a whole sort of avant-garde, dadaist thing happening.”
Nancy And Beth banter on stage and it’s mostly unscripted. “It’s really fun to do because we don’t know what our shows are gonna be,” Hunt says. “It keeps us on our toes and keeps the moment flowing.”
Mullally says she and Hunt devised a mythos around Nancy and Beth — "a very performance arty, obscure kind of thing." In concert, Nancy And Beth cover a range of material that includes songs by Doris Day, Rufus Wainwright, Ethel Merman, Joni Mitchell, George Jones, Dinah Washington and LaVern Baker. Oh, and rapper Gucci Mane.
Mullally found Gucci Mane's "I Don't Love Her" by chance while skimming iTunes and convinced Hunt they should cover it. “The minute that we started doing it, trying to actually have [those lyrics] come out of our mouths,” says Mullally, “we were like ‘Oh wow, this is a definite!’ ”
Adds Hunt: “It kind of broke us through to the other side, like a different dimension. It freed us in terms of what we could say. I mean we weren’t consciously thinking that, but there was definitely a liberation factor when we started singing the words.”
Audiences, they say, tend to be shocked — then charmed. Given that Nancy And Beth’s fanbase is unlikely to be Gucci Mane’s fanbase, Mullally says audiences start “slightly aghast, but by the end they’re screaming in delight. It really brings the masses together.”
“It’s an anthem for peace,” says Hunt.
Costuming is integral to the performance. “We like to keep it minimal for packing reasons,” says Hunt, “because it’s Nancy And Beth on the go. We have to be able to do a lot with this choreography, so they’re pretty utilitarian and stylish.”
This time, that means Adidas track suits, which Hunt says enable audiences to note the “lines on the side of our bodies and it’s easier to see us in sync.”
They are not, both stress, sexy. “We don’t do sexy choreography or sexy moves,” says Mullally. “The costumes we wore last year were described by one journalist as ‘objectification proof.’ It’s just below the surface of consciousness, but there is a feminist element to the band.”
Yet, Nancy And Beth have been playing Ruth Brown's dirty, double-entendre-laden blues song “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It.” They faced a dilemma. Mullally explains: “How could we do it, but not be sexy? I thought we could go into the next dimension beyond sexy where it’s so sexual that it’s not sexy anymore. It’s sorta shocking, but only because it’s disgusting and hilarious. All bets are off.”
Nancy And Beth perform at City Winery in Boston on Sunday, May 12.