Review: Paula West plums the minefield of love in dazzling new show
By Andrew Gilbert Correspondent
Toward the end of Paula West's Valentine's Day performance at Feinstein's, she glanced down at a handsome couple in the front row and realized why they looked so darn familiar. "Did I marry you guys?"
The two men reported that almost four years after West joined them in matrimony, they were doing great, which was good to hear. But any couple on shaky ground might want to think twice before embarking on her deliciously wicked new show, which runs through March 22.
If love is a battlefield, to quote one pop icon that West didn't get around to covering, San Francisco's brilliantly omnivorous song stylist offered a striking report from the front lines of love with a program of songs laying bare the dangers of romance. Which isn't to say that West traffics in cynicism or cheap irony. She's a sharp-eyed observer who turns even the most difficult truths into shapely and alluring musical expressions.
She opened the show with two odes to the power of lust. Phrasing with the timing of a self-assured stand-up comic, she nailed every punch line in the hilariously smutty Andy Razaf/James P. Johnson number "Do What You Did Last Night," which offers a congenial warning about the hazards of overindulging in nocturnal exertions. The slyly swinging arrangement of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' "I Won't Dance" explored similar territory from a different direction, with its cautionary refusal for fear of where dancing would lead.
Always on the lookout for unlikely material, West turned Fred Neil's "Midnight Cowbow" theme "Everybody's Talkin' " (made famous by Harry Nilsson's recording) and Hank Williams' honky tonkin' "Settin' the Woods on Fire" into convincing vehicles for her jazz sensibility. With a velvet-plush contralto that's only grown richer and more expressive with time, she has slightly dialed back her delivery a degree or two, particularly on her dramatic, long-held closing notes, which makes her big vocal gestures all the more effective.
The show's centerpiece was a three-song section devoted to what West called "dysfunction." Bob Dylan's caustic slap-down "It Ain't Me Babe" rolled along, powered by Ed Cherry's deft guitar, with each denial carrying a more poisonous sting. The confection "I Wanna Get Married" from the forgotten World War II show "Follow the Girls" went down easy as a series of comical pleas for permanence, though the witty wordplay only served to sugarcoat the desperation.
But when it comes to delivering an epic smackdown, Dylan is a lightweight compared to Jerome Kern and Bernard Dougall's "I'll Be Hard to Handle." While Ginger Rogers warbled it in a broad Polish accent in the context of a stage show in "Roberta," outside the film the song marries a headlong melody to a lyrical drubbing so brutal that West almost seemed apologetic delivering the final put-down, "I think you're a punk." Let's call the whole thing off, indeed.
If all this sounds bleak, the effect is actually one of trench-sharing solidarity, a feeling of communion that flows from the egoless vibe on stage. West has always found superb collaborators, and her current band is par for the course. Bay Area pianist Adam Shulman, a key member of bassist Marcus Shelby's big and small ensembles, is a highly sympathetic arranger who has clearly found West's comfort zone.
The rhythm section tandem of bassist John Wiitala, a Bay Area mainstay for more than three decades, and highly musical New York drummer Jerome Jennings, kept the pulse taut but elastic. But the band's fulcrum is veteran guitarist Cherry, an incisive improviser whose beautifully calibrated strumming referenced the original Dylan, Williams and Nilsson sources while providing a core of jazz urbanity.
West didn't ignore the possibility of love as pure rapture. Late in the show, she offered a sublime version of "I'm Glad There Is You," and a joyously swinging run through Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Happy As the Day Is Long." But she closed with a lean and mean arrangement of a Talking Heads song that could provide an apt name for her show, "Life During Wartime." Underscored by Cherry's spooky bent notes and Jennings' insistent gallop, West proclaims there's "no time for dancing, or lovey dovey," but as her show reminds us again and again, from love's pyre, the burning keeps us alive.