Six years ago or so, the “punk vaudeville” band Nancy And Beth — whose principal members are Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt — played in San Francisco, and almost nobody knew about it. So they needed to pound the pavement.
“We hadn’t sold that many tickets, to the night before the first show, Stephanie and I went down to the Castro with flyers that we made ourselves,” Mullally tells SF Weekly. “So we stood on a prominent corner and handed out flyers. I would just baldly say to people that I played Karen on Will & Grace. We went into gay bars and finally, at a certain point, people did figure out that I was Karen on Will & Grace, and things picked up a little bit.”
Eventually, they befriended a guy on the sidewalk who invited them to his apartment upstairs to smoke cannabis.
“I don’t really smoke pot, but we went up there and he had a bong that was shaped like a penis and balls,” Mullally adds. “I took one hit off the bong — and I don’t know that I was a person anymore. I was like, ‘Stephanie, we have to go.’ I don’t know how we got out of there or down the stairs. I was propped up against a wall, and then I ultimately threw up.”
All over the guy’s apartment, phallic decor and all?
“No, it was when we got back to the hotel,” she says. “Stephanie helped me. But we did have people in the audience the next night, so I guess it was worth it.”
“It was totally worth it!” Hunt interjects. “We had drag queens.”
This time around, Nancy And Beth return to Feinstein’s at the Nikko with a bit more brio and a wonderful full-length album under their belt, 2017’s eponymous Nancy And Beth. In theory, this obviates the need to do their own P.R. at 440 or The Edge.
“I’m not saying we won’t take a trip to the Castro,” Mullally insists, “but it’ll just be because we want to and not because we desperately need to.”
Having met on the set of an independent film some years ago, Mullally and Hunt quickly bonded, putting a shared love for melancholic folk songs to good use alongside Mullally’s penchant for theatrical choreography. They’re a few years apart in age, but they share a retro sensibility, and Nancy And Beth is full of beautifully arranged covers of songs like Marshall Scott Warner’s “100,000 Women Can’t Be Wrong” — only a few of which could really be considered standards per se — plus the occasional Tenacious D-esque oddity like Gucci Mane’s “I Don’t Love Her,” backed by choral vocals.
Mullally and Hunt are quick to point out that while Nancy And Beth represents the harmonic fusion of two very funny people, the project itself is not a comical one — and that while they play venues like Feinstein’s at the Nikko (Friday and Saturday, May 3-4) or New York’s Cafe Carlyle alongside places like Grand Ole Opry and the Newport Folk Festival, they’re not strictly cabaret, either. The vibe is less Blossom Dearie, more Peaches, with lots of synchronized movement in videos such as “Please Mr. Jailer.” The duo’s range is impressive: On their cover of Rufus Wainwright’s “Vibrate,” they sound almost like Wainwright’s mother and aunt, the McGarrigle Sisters, while the Nancy And Beth version of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” replicates every vocal intonation heard on the original recording.
“There are certain versions of songs that I don’t think can be topped, so in that case I think we would just like to expand upon them by doing them in three-part,” Mullally says. “We just kind of do what we feel is right. We have another record that we made a few months ago that’s coming out in 2020, and it came out so much better. It so exceeded our wildest expectations, and we’re really excited about it. I love the first record. It’s great, but it’s like a primer compared to the second record.”
And it’s much more than the two of them. The full band features Petra Haden, the L.A. violinist and vocalist best known for her work with That Dog (or maybe The Rentals, if your memory goes back that far) whose contributions to Nancy And Beth include trumpet solos. Vocal trumpet solos, that is.
“It’s just Petra,” Mullally says, knowing that a fuller explanation would fail to do that justice. “But she’s convincing. It’s incredible — and it’s witty, too.”
By their own admission, Nancy And Beth’s whip-smart performances tend to devolve into a little silliness between songs, but they have big dreams of a full-scale Vegas-style show with an underwater number in a big tank, a song that involves choreographed golf carts, and something on horseback.
“We can’t do all the things we want on a normal tour,” Mullally says. “It’s hard to pack a golf cart. We would need extra tour buses — or tour buses at all. We don’t have a tour bus.”
And while it’s probably something relatively few people even notice, Nancy And Beth are punctilious about that capitalized A in “And.” It’s because they like it, and because it helps create a little breathing room between the Stephanie Hunt and Megan Mullally and the band they started, which are not one and the same.
“People have such gigantic spaz attacks over the capitalized A. That is hilarious,” Mullally says. “You have to print it that way, but some publications just refuse. I’m looking at you, New York Times! Do you not do a dollar sign when you’re writing ‘Ke$ha’? What’s the difference?”
Well, Kesha dropped the dollar sign a few years ago, although A$AP Rocky and the rest of the A$AP Mob haven’t, so point taken. Half-kidding, Hunt adds that the A “could be a representation of inclusivity, capitalizing the connectedness.”
“And lawlessness!” Mullally shouts. There you have it.
Nancy And Beth, Friday, May 3, 8 p.m., and Saturday, May 4, 7 and 10 p.m., at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. $65-$105, feinsteinsatthenikko.com