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Mullally's musical variety refreshing, defies labeling

Labels, especially in Hollywood, have never been more elusive.

Sitcom starlets are making perfume. Singers become runway models. Athletes sell indoor grills.

But ask anyone in attendance Saturday night at Megan Mullally's incredible rock-soul-jazz-blues-madrigal (yes, madrigal!) concert at the University at Buffalo, and they'll attest to the multipronged strength of this woman.

A one-trick pony, she ain't.

As one-fourth of NBC's soon-to-end "Will and Grace," Mullally is better known for her squeaky, trashy, pill-popping character, Karen Walker. In concert, on the stage where her road to celebrity started on Broadway in the mid-1990s, she all but acknowledges that part of her fame.

As the lead singer of the Supreme Music Program, she exudes a Californiaesque coolness that's all about smooth rhythms and brisk beats. As she suggested to the audience at one point near the end of her hour-plus set, the spirit of Eva Cassidy lingers heavily if ever so deservedly. Grab a glass of wine, throw on your blue jeans and enjoy the ride.

A Stetson hat might come in handy as well, as evidenced in her opening song, a "maudlin self-pitying" ditty that was more Loretta Lynn than audience members may have expected. It was quick, it was hilarious, and it was more than a little ironic.

"We've shuffled off, and here we are," she said, referencing the anti-coast aura of a place like Buffalo.

It's as if she couldn't be happier to be away from Hollywood.

"The Love Affair Is Over," a sultry jazz beat with silky tones, was rich and full-bodied. British band the Decembrists received a cover of their irony-filled "I Was Meant for the Stage." Sung by a father to a son, the mid-tempo rock song advises the spotlight-hungry to be wary of what lies beyond the curtains.

Mullally, at many points, was keen of such ironic story songs, but in this case, her pathos and talent were painting a more endearing picture. It was theater, in the spirit of Bowie and Mercury.

The set, like her recordings, was so full of musical range that it could be surprising where she took you. A mid-set Americana jaunt was haunting ("Far From Me," "The Water Is Wide"), inspired and full of depth; while a few scattered genuine rock 'n' roll numbers (Ryan Adams, indie band Frog Pond) were different and odd, but always full of pleasing contrast.

With the help of her quietly impressive band, all paths taken lead to the same musical idiom, if varied by dialect. If the range of styles got to some in the audience, it wasn't for long, and it wasn't without warrant. Not one mention of Hollywood or "Will and Grace" was made, but the cunning wit that we know from her TV alter-ego was there. She can't open her mouth without saying something completely off the cuff, and playfully funny.

"We're gonna do 11 new songs tonight, but I'm not telling you which ones in case we do an old one [poorly], I can say, 'Oh, that's a new one,' " she said coyly.

While not overtly dismissive of what brought her to fame and success, she's careful not to give any impression that we might know her on Thursdays as a pill-popping, Cosmo-chugging Manhattan socialite. But instead of being ambivalent toward her career path, or merely exploiting it for some post-sitcom music gig, she uses her talent in new, uncompromising ways.

It's artistry at its core, and it's refreshing beyond belief.

Try putting a label on that.

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