Paula West review: Love songs with a twist

By Aidin Vaziri

February 13, 2015

Appropriately enough for either Valentine’s weekend or the opening of “50 Shades of Grey” (take your pick), it began with a little sex. Paula West opened her six-week residency at Feinstein’s at the Nikko on Thursday with a jaunty rendition of “Do What You Did Last Night,” a 1929 composition about, well, you know what, originally performed by Ethel Waters.

Her voice as familiar and warm as the early spring air outside, West played the song for laughs — emphasizing its slapstick imagery and signaling a set that was going to be quite different in tone from last year’s run at the same venue, when heartache loomed large and the spirit was decidedly downbeat.

“So you guys couldn’t get in to see '50 Shades of Grey’ today?” she deadpanned to the guffaws of the sold-out crowd.

West spent nearly 90 minutes exploring love and romance through a set of wonderful obscurities from her record collection — backed by an excellent quartet featuring the pianist/arranger Adam Shulman, guitarist Ed Cherry, bassist John Wiitala and hard-hitting drummer Jerome Jennings.

With Shulman’s uninhibited arrangements leading the way, West moved effortlessly from Hank Williams’ whimsical “Settin’ The Woods on Fire” to the dippy “I Wanna Get Married,” from the wartime Broadway musical “Follow the Girls.” Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” was reimagined as a lilting tropical ballad, while West’s languorous take on Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind” made it clear that you don’t need another person to get tripped up by matters of the heart.

“It’s the twisted songs that are the most fun,” she said.

West took each one on with her whole body, screwing up her mouth, searching the distance with her eyes and holding her arms akimbo as the grooves moved her.

Declaring her musical ADD (“I’m all over the place,” she said), West demonstrated her point, as angular rhythms and sharp chords ushered in her set-closing version of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” playing up the song’s punk roots as only a true punk could.