Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Paula West at The Rrazz Room

We're just about at the mid-point of Paula West's seven-week run in San Francisco. I wish I'd gotten to the Rrazz Room earlier, so you'd have more time to plan an evening with this incredibly honest and powerful singer. But that means you still have three weeks to take advantage of this opportunity.

I'd seen West a year ago, in the same venue. But on that night, I think I was so taken by her trio of backup singers that I didn't get the full impact of what this woman brings to the stage. When she feels a song -- and she seems to feel all of them -- she doesn't let that feeling go. She spends time with it, and searches for a way to share it with you. It's almost like she's a hostess, inviting you in to share the song with her -- the way she knows it.

She started with "New World Coming" (made famous by Nina Simone and Mama Cass Elliott), which resonated nicely after tonight's speech to Congress by President Obama.

But it was the second tune she and the George Mesterhazy Quartet played that really hooked me: an amazing version of "The Beat Goes On." The way she played with the beat during the refrain, "drums keep poundin' rhythm to the brain" was absolutely magical.

She also does terrific versions of "Gentle On My Mind," some Rodgers and Hart and a Cole Porter song I'd never heard before, "You've Got That Thing," that includes healthy dollops of the Porter wit:

"You've got what Adam craved when he
With love for Eve was tortured
She only had an apple tree
But you, you've got an orchard

You've got those ways, those taking ways
That make me rush off to Cartier's
For a wedding ring, you've got that thing"

When she puts her stamp on Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," you'll hear the song in ways you never have. She sings it as if she could change the world herself, just with this one song, on this one night, singing it for just one person: you. Her "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" is heartfelt without being sappy and she brings out all the pain of a once-lush, now dessicated, love in Lennon & McCartney's "For No One."

Plus the band behind her is worth listening to all on their own. Especially pianist and arranger Goerge Mesterhazy.

If you live in the Bay Area, go. She'll be at The Rrazz Room until March 22. If you don't live in the Bay Area, get here. (Although she also plays New York with some regularity -- if memory serves, at The Oak Room at The Algonquin. Here's what the New York Times had to say about her rendition of two of my favorites from the show:

"The peppy martial pulse of “The Beat Goes On,” the 1967 Sonny and Cher anthem for flower children, has been atomized and turned into polyrhythmic jazz. As she delivered the song at Tuesday’s opening-night show in staccato, syncopated phrases, the George Mesterhazy Quartet injected it with Afro-Cuban heat. Her dark clotted voice transformed a carefree hippie strut celebrating changing fashion into an ominous reflection on the relentless drive of history. This is it, it’s now or never, get ready, she implied; heavy turbulence lies ahead.

"Later in the show Bob Dylan’s 1964 anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” picked up the theme. As Ms. West bore down on the prophetic lyrics, images flashed to mind of an emerging topsy-turvy order in which hierarchies are reversed and bankrupt financiers and corrupt politicians find themselves either in prison or on the streets.")

Do go. Soon as you can.

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