Suzanne Vega has only one New York show scheduled on her tour supporting the new acoustic effort Suzanne Vega Close-Up, the late January show at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room. It sold out easily, and others may be added, but there is a slight melancholy about the fact, indicative of the city’s lethargy in celebrating its own. New York of course has little “local” culture or local heroes. Of course we have world-culture; but sometimes it is nice to have our own artists, and our own stories, told by people who really know them. Ironically (compared to the self-image), we are an importer of culture, rather than an exporter; even a “Brooklyn band” is most likely a bunch of twenty-somethings from Schenectady and Alexandria and Oak Park and Palo Alto. Even New Jersey is better in this regard.
I was lucky enough to be at the show, thanks to a press pass (I was interviewing Vega the next day). Vega is an excellent performer: her silky voice is not just something that gets J-loed into existence in the studio. It’s truly beautiful, all by itself. Her guitar work is flawless, and she plays with musicians who know her well and never miss a beat. She is also whip-smart and keeps up a spare but droll commentary on the songs and the circumstances.
The venue, the Allen Room, is a place every New Yorker should go see. It’s organizationally part of Lincoln Center, but it’s in the new Time-Warner buildings at Columbus Circle. It is beautiful. Behind the stage is a forty-foot-tall wall of glass looking out onto Central Park South. The city looked astonishing through it. Vega herself commented on it: “I have to say I really envy you guys, because you get to look at that view. Is that not amazing?”
The sound, however, I have to say, was not great: I can’t tell if this was the room or way the show was produced. There was amplification, so evaluating the sound is more complicated than for your average Classical concert, where there are only two ingredients, the instrument and the hall. The show was loud, for one thing, and there was quite a bit of reverb, more than seems appropriate for Vega. This was in especial contrast to the concert of hers I saw last May at the Sanctuary Concerts in Chatham, New Jersey, where you could hardly tell she was on a microphone: it sounded the way a voice sounds, just louder. The musicians and the aesthetic were the same, so I am tempted to blame the room. The Chatham concert was in an old Presbyterian church, and old, spare buildings are almost universally praised for their acoustics; while newer constructions, even music halls designed by experts, typically are not. I suppose the Allen Room will acquire a reputation as time goes on. We will see whether it will be good or bad.
There were some unusual arrangements: a string quartet was called in for a few songs, and except for a surreal version of “Tom’s Diner,” they did not add much; Vega keeps on trying to add another sound to “New York is a Woman,” which needs nothing more than acoustic guitar and bass; and “Caramel,” which received its best treatment live at “Sessions at West 54th Street,” still does not sound right with an electric guitar. “Left of Center” is played with a very busy bass line, which dominated the room. Occasionally Vega also tries to belt out a note for force or rasp one for passion, but in general she is best when coolest.
Some songs worked well, however, with the reverb. “Small Blue Thing” was impressively atmospheric; the noise on “Some Journey” just piled up, producing a real emotional build-up, which is unusual for a Vega song. I was unfamiliar with the song and very struck by it. “Blood Makes Noise” was wonderfully reinvented with a very heavy bass, and “Tombstone” had great swing. “The Man Who Played God,” a new song and not formally released, was fabulous, especially when compared with the studio version you can find on the internet (in which her voice sounds thin and distant, like a falsetto). In typical Suzanne Vega style, she noted that she got the idea from reading “a review of a biography of Picasso.” I scribbled down the lyrics on my setlist, I found them so striking at the time:
All things living here around you:
You can change them,
Rearrange them in your mind.
One two three: you could be
The Man Who Played God.
She noted also that the incident narrated in “Frank and Ava” – Ava Gardner throwing jewels out the window in a fight with Sinatra – took place right behind her, on Central Park South. It was a satisfying moment – one where you feel the life of the city piled up around you, but not wasted, in the end.
But still the best of all is when she leaves it to her voice and her guitar. “Gypsy” sounded superb, as did “I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May” and “Rosemary.”
The focus of her show was her “classics,” but I will note that I would have loved to see more of her recent work showcased – the songs that few people have probably heard live. Her older work may be more familiar to her audiences, but it’s not necessarily better. That’s why we’re still listening.
I was seated next to another member of the press, and we chatted very amicably before and after the show. Her review is here.
You cannot make someone love, as we all know, and if the city’s love affair with Suzanne Vega ended in 1991, so be it; and perhaps the experiences she records are not the experiences of most New Yorkers. But they certainly are like mine. And so I found myself walking through the city singing the words of “Anniversary“, trying to “live on every street.”