Enmore Theatre, Newtown; Sydney, Australia
Saturday, July 28
Suzanne Vega is celebrating the 30th and 25th anniversaries of, respectively, the albums Solitude Standing and 99.9Fd. Or as she explained cleverly at the start of the show, selections from the albums. No fear of a trick though, that meant most of each album – just one or two of the songs that wouldn’t suit being performed live left on the shelf. She started solo, with the a capella rendition of Tom’s Diner and Vega saying, “so, you know what comes next?” I think before the audience could gather that her two biggest hits would be arriving straight away there was awe at how good the voice was. How almost nothing had changed in 30 years.
And then it’s to Luka, the unlikely – and enduring – hit single about child abuse and neglect. Vega’s voice phenomenal, her band sympathetic and totally ego-less. They got as close to the original arrangements as possible and sought not a single spotlight. Even as the Peter Gabriel-inspired drum parts (Wooden Horse) and faithful guitar solos were peeled off it was never about the players, only ever about the songs.
And then to strong album tracks standing absolutely majestic – In The Eye and Solitude’s title song threatened to dwarf the opening triumvirate. Of course Gypsy is sweet and lovely, made more so with Vega’s spoken-introduction, explaining it was written when she was just 18, held back from her debut album. She would go on to explain what happened to the song’s subject in a tune from the 99.9 record.
As good as the 30 year old songs are the tunes from the 25th Anniversary record often had even more bite as live-concert moments; Rock In This Pocket (Song of David) and Blood Makes Noise were huge, arriving on the back of funny stories about snubbing Bono and having a number one hit single that beat out artists as diverse as Gabriel and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor.
And then to In Liverpool, revealed as a spiritual sequel, a palinode to Gypsy.
Vega the storyteller, between songs – not just in the songs – is as good, as important, as Vega the singer and Vega the composer.
Fat Man and Dancing Girl and (If You Were) In My Movie were great album tracks to hear in a not-just-greatest-hits set – at times Vega took a walk, had a dance even, other times her anchoring acoustic guitar was a crucial texture, long serving bassist Mike Visceglia (that’s him on the original Solitude recordings) was positively electric, while guitarist Gerry Leonard managed to coax a range of sounds, covering for guest solos from recordings that featured players the likesof Tchad Blake and David Hidalgo, also approximating some of the keyboards, electronica treatments and strings. Drummer Yuval Lion, a jazz and pop master, was the dynamic masterpiece controlling not just tempo but overall mood from the back. Hypnotic to watch and hear and feel.
As Girls Go felt just right as the set closer.
Vega and Leonard returned to perform the epic ballad, The Queen and The Soldier, the full band re-joining for Marlene On The Wall (both songs from the 1985 eponymous debut album). Then it was to Left of Center, from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, Joe Jackson’s original piano part covered – in a quite astounding party-trick kind of way – by bassist Visceglia. Just his fluid lines and Vega’s voice. Still not a cough nor crack, not the slightest hint that more than 30 years had passed since some of these songs were recorded. It was the songs, of course, that were the real true star of the evening, mature, clever, thoughtful songs. But Suzanne Vega’s voice was constantly a reminder of her other great skill, the breathy, whisper-tone asides, the soft, caressing coos, casual spoken-word kook one minute, anthemic belters from a grown-up indie rocker the next.
And then the closer was the band-accompanied rendition of Tom’s Diner, a faithful rework of the 1990 DNA remix to bookend the show. This had way more impact than I could have predicted – and the immediate full-house standing ovation confirmed this.
An all-time Top 5 show for me. I can think only straight away that seeing Prince solo at the piano and Patti Smith performing Horses meant as much as this. I laughed, I sobbed, I remembered that there’s no artist I’ve listened to more consistently than Suzanne Vega. Her music a part of my life since I was 9 or 10 years old. A fan for 30 years. This anniversary show meant very close to the world to me.
My (high) expectations not only met but completely blown away.
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