This afternoon the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presented a 90-minute concert by Paula West, in the course of which she sang fifteen songs all compacted into a single set:
Paula West, courtesy of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Her rhythm section was a trio led by Adam Shulman, which presented one instrumental selection before West took the stage. The other rhythm players were Owen Benjamin on bass and Greg Wiser-Pratt on drums, both of whom had opportunities for solo takes during several of West’s songs.
West’s repertoire is eclectically extensive, which could not have provided better refuge on such a politically-charged day. Early in the set West dropped the line, “No fascists here.” However, she kept her selections relatively apolitical until the end of the set, after which, as an encore, she sang the traditional song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” which became a major civil rights anthem among the followers of Martin Luther King.
Nevertheless, time has ways of playing tricks on us. Through a shift in context, a song that was once sentimental can acquire sharper edges. West chose to acknowledge the death of Glen Campbell at the beginning of this month by singing one of his best-know hits, “Wichita Lineman.” The trouble is that, when we listen to Jimmy Webb’s lyrics, they no longer seem quite as poignantly sentimental as Webb probably intended them to be. Rather, it is almost impossible to listen to those works without thinking of the National Security Agency (NSA); and the song could almost be adopted as NSA’s “corporate anthem.” Hence that judicious used of the adverb “relatively” in the last paragraph! Mind you, I doubt that West intended to stress the fascist connotation this song has now assumed; but today’s world is definitely not the one in which Webb and Campbell lived.
Fortunately, West’s repertoire had relatively little to do with such dark sides. Personally, I was particularly glad to see her include Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March” (for which Jobim wrote the English lyrics, as well as those in Portuguese). Also, readers may recall that last week I concluded my account of the Jazz Herstory Collective at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival by citing my “ongoing quest for singers who can do justice to the legacy of Bessie Smith.” West turned out to be such a singer with an account of Wesley Wilson’s “Gimme A Pigfoot” that could not have been truer to Bessie’s memory. For that matter, the legacy of Bob Dylan fared just as well with her interpretation of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The one weakness that emerged from time to time had to do with West’s sense of pitch. This was probably just a matter of the physical conditions that confronted her, whereby those on the audience side of the loudspeakers could hear the instrumentalists better than she did. For the most part West held her own about as well as could be expected; but her account of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” ran the risk of straying into the territory of the stylizations of Darlene Edwards.