Suzanne Vega: still left of centre and still on label-defying form
by Jeremy Miles
Suzanne Vega: Lighthouse, Poole
I first saw Suzanne Vega 25 years ago when she was flying high on the reputation of breakthrough hits like Luka, Tom’s Diner and Marlena on the Wall. The media, expecting just another New York coffee house folkie, were stunned by her capacity for producing intelligent, emotionally charged lyrics.
They fumbled around for a suitable label to pin on her. Which is why for a couple of years Ms Vega was routinely described as ‘a Joni Mitchell for the Filofax generation’ Until that is her simple, wistful acappella recording of Tom’s Diner was remixed by the dance producers DNA, became a club hit and was used as an early experiment in music file compression. Hey presto, Vega was now ‘The Mother of the MP3’.
She shook off those horribly dated sobriquets long ago but not before absorbing some of the musical influences that had been visited upon her work. Quietly plugging away she has been producing material of depth and quality ever since. A quarter of a century after Luka so effectively explored the difficult subject of child abuse, she is still out there, left of centre, creating cutting-edge material with an experimental lyrical and musical slant – intelligent, searching songs that still tend to defy glib journalistic description.
At Lighthouse in Poole last night (Thursday July 3) – one of handful of UK dates following her triumphant appearance at Glastonbury last weekend – she played a set that was both sophisticated and fun. Backed by longtime musical cohorts, drummer Doug Yowell and the brilliant guitar of David Bowie’s sometime musical director Gerry Leonard, it was poetry in sound. A collection of songs that found Vega’s distinctive and pure vocals juxtaposed against a magnificently mindful backing that chugged and chimed, swooped and simmered its way into your consciousness. Although the addition of bass and keyboards would have undoubtedly made the sound bigger and beefier, this ambient approach worked remarkably well
When the old hits were dutifully performed – Luka in particular remains timelessly touching – they were gently but effectively re-worked. They gelled beautifully with the real purpose of the concert – to showcase a fine selection of songs taken from her new album Tales From The Realm Of the Queen of Pentacles. An impressive body of work, it was produced and co-written by Leonard – a self-confessed super-geek. So who better to enhance it with a mind-blowing box of technical tricks? What an extraordinary guitarist!
Just a week shy of her 55th birthday Vega looked great. Dressed all in black – a point underlined in her song I Never Wear White – she chatted cheerily to the audience between numbers. An anecdote here, a telling aside there. Tales of lost loves and her occasional quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Stand out tracks included Fool’s Complaint, Jacob and the Angel, Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain and a selection of oldies that remain definite goodies like Gypsy, Small Blue Thing, Ironbound/Fancy Poultry, Left of Centre and Blood Makes Noise, the latter delivered as the result of a surprise encore request.
Although this was a great concert it really wasn’t much of a ‘show’. Production values were clearly pretty low on the priority list. This was an occasion to let Vega’s remarkable songs speak for themselves. As such it might have worked better in a jazz club or at least a more intimate space than the big, wide concert hall at Poole. But that’s nit-picking. This was a great night listening to a singer-songwriter who is always at her best when performing live. She didn’t disappoint.
Mention should go too to excellent support act from Brighton, singer-songwriter Chris Simmons. He could have come over as little more than a warm-up busker but the quality of his material, and voice, shone through.