Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 1/5/2022
published: 21 /
Lisa Torem enjoys Suzanne Vega's much-awaited set at Chicago's Old Town School. which includes hits and selections from her one-woman show about novelist Carson McCullers.
A swirl of adjectives come to mind when I think of Suzanne Vega, with perhaps, the term ‘raconteur’ front and centre. In her hungrier years, she forged her path as a guitar-slinging folkie in New York’s storied Greenwich Village, ushering in a brilliant second wave of female singer-songwriters in the mid-1980s.
But Vega’s path since then has brought her to so many other places, nationally and internationally, and tonight’s performance was a reminder of how influential her journey has been. More specifically, the theme of this multi-week tour was drawn from the album, ‘An Evening of Songs and Stories’ but the actual set was more far-reaching.
A headliner at the UK Glastonbury Festival, Vega achieved platinum status across the pond. Her nine studio albums, which vary in concept, address Greek mythology, Hollywood glamour, child abuse and unbridled passion. Her unique poetry rises from the page with each crisp, enunciated utterance.
Her talent has been recognized in film. Most notably, American director and Chicagoan John Hughes borrowed ‘Left of Centre’ for the 1986 ‘Pretty in Pink’ soundtrack. ‘”’I'm only in the outskirts and in the fringes,” she stated in that introspective ballad, about feeling invisible within the confines of love.
Tonight, the ginger-haired entertainer waltzed onstage to warm applause donning, among other pieces of apparel, a black top hat—um, she “never wears white,” but we’ll get to that later. Her sparkly top shone under a tailored black jacket joined by matching slacks.
Guitarist/musical director, Gerry Leonard, humbly checked in on his gleaming white solid body axe moments earlier. His persona belies his CV: Leonard worked alongside David Bowie in the singer’s later years, as well as Cyndi Lauper. His cotton-candy streaked hair and friendly (but unassuming) composure juxtaposed Vega’s stark garb and animated vibe. (With all-around enthuse, Leonard also added the occasional backing vocal.)
“We’re happy to be here,” Vega smiled. The pandemic had cancelled earlier shows and may have worn down others, but she retained the giddiness of a first-time performer. What followed was a whirlwind of smart material, beginning with ‘Marlene on the Wall,’ featuring Leonard’s first fiery solo of the night. Vega left guitar playing to Leonard for ‘Freeze Tag,’ a profound ballad based on a mysterious chord progression, slick slide and rapid-fire lyrics. On the Latin-flavored ‘Caramel,’ Vega spun seductive imagery against samba strums.
This was a revelatory night. ‘Gypsy’ included an entertaining backstory about a romantic encounter with a young British lad Vega courted as a “disco-dance” and “folk-singing” counselor at a camp in upper New York. As the details of the teen encounter unfolded, Old Town patrons smiled and laughed. It was easy to imagine the still-very youthful singer exploring first love. But the story continued when Vega unveiled a song written years later about the same gent. ‘In Liverpool’ is a stately song-of-place with strong innuendo, to which Leonard added infectious seasonings and an engrossing bassline.
A rapid-fire ‘mini-set’ cottoning to her native city began with ‘Frank and Ava,’ an explosive song about the volatile relationship that existed between two of North America’s most glamourous stars. Leonard accentuated the chemistry with an unhinged arrangement. Later on, Vega included a shout-out to sound engineer ‘Steve’ for his services. Although the duo’s instrumental setup may have looked simple, I believe, the technology required a mastermind.
The narrative action in ‘Frank and Ava’ centres around Ava Gardner’s legendary jewel toss across 59th Street. While we didn’t find out who ran off with the ousted gem, we did get to hear Vega’s witty rendition of the pair’s escapades. ‘New York Is My Destination’ and ‘Harper Lee’ circled back to Vega’s one-woman show (now a film honoured by SXSW, etc.) concerning Carson McCullers, author of ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.’ Vega talked through and performed a tongue-in-cheek story about her admiration for the Southern writer and brought up the challenges of bringing the author’s complex personality to life onstage.
This set ended with the catchy, celebratory ‘New York Is A Woman’; which can sit proudly among better-known Broadway/pop tunes that flaunt the Big Apple’s bold traits. This was an opportunity to soak in Vega’s own brand of chemistry. Her stage antics were evocative, and like her native city, larger-than-life.
‘Left of Centre’ with its puzzle-piece lyrics served as a haunting contrast and a reminder of how carefully Vega constructs her phrases but then integrates them into a realistic context. But we got to know even more about her inner-monologue and fashion preferences with ‘I Never Wear White’— “white is for virgins, children in summer, brides in the park.” Leonard’s acid-rock pedal effects made the evolving story glisten.
Then, she cast a more sobering spell with ‘Luka,’ her engrossing song about child abuse. Switching gears again, Vega revved up with ‘Tom’s Diner,’ which was reimagined when the duo ‘DNA’ conjured up dance rhythms to the original a cappella version. With Leonard at the helm, liberally scraping out rhythms alongside space-aged blips, Vega focused on the beatnik-y coffee shop banter.
“We were hoping you’d want more. This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Vega whispered, edging back toward the stage after a standing ovation. The encore began with an alluring Blondie cover, ‘Dreaming,’ after Vega professed admiration for particular cover tunes. Then, she brought us into familial interior with a bittersweet, but hilarious story about a ‘Viking’ cat ritual, which inspired her to write, ‘Tombstone.’ The more sedate ‘Rosemary’ with its sensual lyric, ”with a question in my footsteps,” might have been the grand finale, but then, Leonard and Vega shared a brief whisper and surprised the audience with ‘Small Blue Thing,’ which an audience member had shouted out as a request earlier, to which Vega had responded with a hushed, “it’s not in the set.”
Because this is one of my favourites from her self-titled 1985 project, I was also hoping it would appear, but of course, understood that a performer can’t simply cater a set to the whims of the crowd. That said, I was delighted to hear this last--minute addition and marvelled at how Vega can personify a simple object:
‘I am thrown against the sky, I am raining down in pieces…”
It was an enriching night, memorable for Vega’s literary allusions to McCullers, her cool, slightly detached, and never overt sense of humor, and high regard for romantic love and passion, despite its challenges. The Old Town School audience was inexplicably moved. And when Vega and Leonard took their final bow, their demeanor made it clear that the feeling was mutual.
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