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Non-Prog Concert Reviews

Suzanne Vega

Live in Melbourne, Australia, February 2008

Review by Bruce Stringer

After a 16-year hiatus, Suzanne Vega returned to Australian shores with a new album, new band and capacity-crowd drawing show. Due to this gap in touring "down under," there seemed to be a sense that Vega was making some type of comeback from retirement, which couldn’t have been further from the truth (if European shows in the last decade have been any indication).
After an arduous journey and multiple mishaps we finally arrived at the venue situated within the illustrious Crown Casino in Melbourne. Decked out like something from a Las Vegas Elvis gig, the venue could only be described as a cultural contradiction. Booths and tables filled the venue and the many blank faces clearly indicated the curious mindset unused to this type of Americanized layout. (A huge divided windmill on either side of the stage attempted to portray an Australian rural scene but this only added to the confusion).

 

To open the show, the a cappella version of "Tom’s Diner" had Suzanne standing center stage all by her lonesome. Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t up to speed on the interaction expected and the usual sing-along sections common on European and US tours was not there. This was interesting in that it gave Vega a real standalone moment that the enthusiastic crowd cherished with an up close intimacy. The classic "Marlene On The Wall" was next and introduced the band’s tight, yet spacious sound. This track has developed over the years and has been arranged to suit the sound of each new album. This time round, though, there seemed to be a return to the original ‘80s "feel."

"New York Is A Woman," the first of the new tracks, was well received and had Vega’s band playing with dynamic tensions within the arrangement. This was illustrated by the difference in snare mix and overall acousticness to the quieter sections compared to the tougher, live parts. The aural spectrum seemed far greater than on the CD and, with "Ludlow Street" up next, the newer material sat consistently with the older classics. This second of the recent tracks sounded much like something from Vega’s last album, "Songs In Red & Gray," and was warmly received by an enthusiastic audience.

The lounge / jazz piece "Caramel" seemed apt considering the surroundings. Although this track was not one of my favorites, the mixture of new and old and the general sequence of acoustic and electric tracks was to be applauded. The first single off the Beauty & Crime CD, "Frank & Ava" was up next after Vega’s brief exposition. It was a fun song with great up-tempo percussiveness thanks to the great drum mix and punchy bass playing by Mike Visceglia. Vega’s keyboard player doubled as backing singer much in the same way that Shawn Colvin did some time ago.

Scaled down to just Suzanne Vega and her trusty acoustic guitar, "Gypsy" (from her "Solitude Standing" album) was a smooth return to her roots and a crowd favorite. "I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May" followed with the usual commentary on the Rod Stewart number of root concern. Again, this was good fun but I’d dearly liked to have heard other, older tracks or something from the "forgotten" Days Of Open Hand LP. (I later found out that this track was interchangeable with the un-played early number "Some Journey" which would have suited me fine.

The band left the stage and bass man Visceglia remained with  Vega to carry on a tradition that would see songs arranged for just bass and vocals. The first of these, "Left Of Center," I saw in the UK on her duet tour. According to Visceglia, Vega wanted to play this track but, as she didn’t actually play guitar on the original song, they came to the arrangement of having Visceglia work out harmonies and bass riffs to fulfill the multiple instrumentation required. The result was – and still is – a highlight of the set. The next number to receive this treatment was "Blood Makes Noise" and, although a great take on the electric-industrial piece, it wasn’t as impacting being played directly after "Left Of Center," though I thoroughly enjoyed it, nonetheless.

"Angel’s Doorway" continued with tracks from the new album and was a punchy re-introduction of the band. The story concerns a 9/11 fire fighter and takes the angle of a more positive nature and, again, had far more dynamic sustenance live than the studio version. Continuing with the Beauty & Crime catalogue "Pornographer’s Dream" was up before the techno-inspired electronica of "Unbound." The matching of such different styles within the set was an informed, intelligent decision and the many bopping heads and grinning faces confirmed the testimony of the passengers of Vega’s always-interesting journey.

"In Liverpool" has been a staple of this lady’s set since 99.9OF and was well received in the lead-up to the penultimate number of the main set: the hit single, "Luka."The guitar had a sharp, punchy quality unlike the buzzing of frets that was noticeable in the first half of the set and Vega’s voice was direct and crystal clear. The electric guitar work was spot on, as was the player’s use – and subtle changing – of sounds throughout. This drew a standing applause and offered Vega and her band a breath of air before the set closer.

To bookend the set, Vega and her band played a live version of the "Tom’s Diner" remix. This gave the feeling of a journey ending as the track was jammed out at length. It was a much stronger performance than one might have expected and as close to hard rock as Vega has ever approached. It was a nice way to end proceedings, even with evident onstage exhaustion and the atmosphere of openness that the venue which was, at times, off putting as an audience member.

 

ENCORE #1

Conspicuously missing from the main set was the new track "Zephyr & I" and final selection from the recent CD. It had a great pop-rock sustenance that was both catchy and impressing. The band was, again, on fine form and the lyrics were craftily mixed to accent all of the curious imagery of the central character Zephyr. The second performance – after numerous yelling of titles old and new – was to be "The Queen And The Soldier." Ironically, every time I have seen Suzanne Vega play she has played this song, preferred over my favorite, "Knight Moves."Alas, you can’t win ‘em all! "Queen…" was tight and acoustically soft which brought out all of the subtle nuances in the esteemed lady’s story. The audience appreciation was well deserved and it was time for the band to leave the stage again.

 

ENCORE #2

Encore number 2 was to be a scaled down affair with the compact number, "Rosemary", which Ms. Vega performed with intricate connection to her instrument. The acoustics of the venue highlighted some of the fret buzzes but the mood was equally anticipatory as the sweat beads ran down her face. Leaving the stage, Vega gave hearty thanks and disappeared to (possibly) collapse backstage. She truly gave her all!

It was truly inspirational to see Suzanne Vega back in Australia and, with jet lag, heat and other local issues she looked exhausted by the end. The set list was an interesting mix, though much of the new album was at the forefront. Sadly, some of the obvious older classics were omitted (i.e." Small Blue Thing," "Knight Moves," "Straight Lines," "Solitude Standing"). This brings up the old conundrum of whether to play familiar tracks in a country that you haven’t visited for 16 years (even if you’ve played them to death elsewhere), or stick to newer songs, unfamiliar to most of the audience. Either way, Suzanne Vega made the hard choices and played one helluva show. As fans warbled on about the intricate textures of Vega’s words, the after-show buzz was that the "The Silver Lady" would return again like some folksy messiah of the modern age. Only time will tell…

       
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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