S.P.A.C.E., Evanston, Illinois, 22/2/2013
published: 23 /
Lisa Torem watches Suzanne Vega plays an enthralling set of classic old and new songs in a show at S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston, Illinois
Suzanne Vega walked through the aisle to the stage with her shiny hair aglow and her artist’s scarf flowing. She looked elegant simply dressed in tight jeans, a black jacket and a matching top hat. Her touring companion, guitarist, Gerry Leonard, has been recently recording with David Bowie. Leonard is originally from Dublin, but now lives in New York. On this tour he is the former Spanish Harlem singer’s rhythm section and arranger.
Her first song lets us in on her costuming. ‘Marlene on the Wall’ is her tribute to one of her idols. The glamorous Dietrich knew how to strike a pose way before Madonna was hatched and Vega, whose bedroom boasted a Dietrich poster, adored those kinds of ladies – and even dedicated an album to them.
Her voice was tender, husky and evocative as she recanted this diva’s effect on soldiers.
“They go down fast,” she sang next on 'When Heroes go Down'. The bittersweet ballad was biting, but it was ‘Small Blue Thing’ which enabled the former dancer and English Literature student to express with utmost honesty her achingly poetic soul.
Although it wasn’t one of her greatest commercial hits, this droning, revealing ballad gift wrapped her skills on acoustic guitar and focused on her marvellous talent for metaphor.
‘Caramel’ was another dreamy one, but by the time she launched into the story about two other cool, hoity-toity icons, ‘Frank and Ava,’ Leonard was ready to rock.
For ‘Hold Me Like A Baby’, she stood alone. “Hold me like a baby that will not fall asleep…” It was like a fusion of lullaby and self-therapy. Very New York and very understandable.
The variety was working charms and then Vega switched gears and introduced some new songs, which, like much of her repertoire, ventured into uncommon themes such as tarot card readings. Things were cooking until she launched into ‘Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain’.
This new kid on the block, beatnik-like tune was rife with word salad, so rife that Vega essentially fumbled the lyrics twice. With tangy lyrics like: “Demons flew, shadows grew,” her faux pas was hard to miss and that’s when the trusting relationship between Leonard and Vega and her audience became the most apparent. Like the professional she is, she simply admitted she screwed up the words and asked her confidant to pick it back up at the bridge. The audience never strayed from the palm of her hand.
Another new kid on the block, ‘I Never Wear White’ was done with gristle and wit. The words were like miraculous building blocks: “I never wear white/ White is for virgins/My colour is black/Black is for poets, witches and dancers…”
To break the ice even more, Vega smiled and said: “Now we’ll do some songs we actually know…” ‘Left of Center,’ which was featured in the film, ‘Pretty in Pink,’ showcased more of her sensitive side. “If you want me you can find me, left of center, in the outskirts in the fringes…”
From her album, '99.5 Fahrenheit',’ she performed the hypnotic ‘Blood Makes Noise’. Leonard’s dynamite solo work underscored the composition’s quirky and sensual oeuvre.
‘The Queen and the Soldier’ has an unbeatable narrative and, as the man a few aisles back whispered to his neighbors, “You really have to concentrate on her lyrics…”
By this time it was almost an obligation to play ‘Luka,’ one of her most commercial and emotional hits. The song, sung in first-person, is about a little boy who is abused, but won’t directly admit it to his neighboor, and it is one of the most visceral of the folk revival period. Like ‘Small Blue Thing,’ it underscored Vega’s immense ability to tell a story with a sparse arrangement, whilst carving gingerly below the surface. Leonard’s solo work was skilful, but not needed to move this intimate tale forward.
Another classic hit, ‘Tom’s Diner,’ followed. It was easy to imagine a younger Vega scribbling on a napkin the lyrics to this slice-of-life, while nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee at a New York City storefront. Although it’s done almost a cappella on the recording, Leonard used his guitar to simulate a makeshift rhythm machine.
Though Vega looked like she appreciated the heartfelt applause for this most recognisable song, she coyly announced: “What I really wanted to do is another new one…”
It was time for an encore and she did a great job, as usual, describing the details of a physical space in a gentle, spiritual manner. ‘Crack in the Wall’ might have been a new song, but it keenly borrowed from the old.
She ended the show with a loving nod to mythology. Her pure voice divined “My name is Calypso/My garden overflows…” and in what seemed like a blink she ended the mystical voyage with a martyred blessing; “I do not ask him to return/I let him go…”
Vega and Leonard did a wildly creative mix of something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. The only thing missing was the cake.
The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com.