Sunday, April 17, 2016

Suzanne Vega Remembers

After spending 30 years writing lyrics full of rich details, it's easy to forget one once in a while. Bob Dylan did it early in his career, bemusedly asking the audience for the first line of a song.

Last night at the Carnegie Lecture Hall, Suzanne Vega froze, a few phrases into "(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May," forgetting what came next. Having already established an intimate rapport with the audience with a little self-deprecation, I was almost expecting her to deadpan, "Line," like a thespian who needs to be prompted. Instead, she stopped, promising to revisit the song later in the set. To regain her footing, she launched into "Gypsy," a song she wrote at age 18 for a camp counselor (more on him later), which she recorded on Solitude Standing in the '80s. She needed a little help when she got to THAT third verse, but a friendly audience member fed her lines, and kept things going.

Even during the time she forgot, Vega maintained her poise, never turning it into a major deal. Unlike her previous Pittsburgh show, where guitarist Gerry Leonard joined her onstage, she was all alone with her guitar last night. She walked onstage with a top hat in hand, like last time, which could mean only one thing: she'd open with "Marlene on the Wall" again, putting on the hat to evoke the song's inspiration, Marlene Dietrich. From there, the set differed greatly from her 2013 appearance.

When I interviewed her for a City Paper article, she said fans could tweet song requests to her and she would try her best to pull them off. The solo set-up would limit what she could pull off (nothing like the more produced "Blood Makes Noise," she specifically said), and that probably explains why she dug into her first two albums for much of the set. "Small Blue Thing," "The Queen and the Soldier," and "Knight Moves" came from her debut. "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" - which might be considered obligatory at this point in her career - came from Solitude Standing, as did the still-romantic "Gypsy" and "Calypso." A couple songs from 2014's Tales of the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles came up too, as well as a couple from Songs in Red and Gray. 

The aforementioned camp counselor, whom Vega knew as a teen, also served as some inspiration to "In Liverpool" from 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees, since he hailed from the city of Beatles. That song has another one of Vega's swelling choruses, merging hooks and words, and it runs through my head on a fairly regular basis. Hearing it in live was a personal highlight of the set.

Vega through in a few other surprises, beyond the lyric slips. She started her encore with "Calypso," but stopped mid-way, asking the audience how they'd feel about a dramatic reading of Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd." (She'll be doing for an upcoming PBS program dedicated to New York City.) The way she introduced it seemed like she was going to play it, but she rattled off the words unaccompanied, which worked just as well considering its author did pretty much the same thing. Then she closed with "Rosemary," which appeared as a single, on the Tried and True compilation and on the fourth volume of Close-Up, her set of re-recorded songs.

The show was staged by Calliope, the long-standing local folk music organization that is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. They're bringing guitarist Leo Kottke to town on Saturday, May 7, which should also be a big night.

(Apologies to openers the Honey Dewdrops, who I missed due to tardiness.)


יובל said...

Thank you for this review! As a fan, it's almost as good as seeing the show myself. Almost... Didn't she play Caramel? Too bad, I really like the solo version of that song.

Actually, Rosemary was first published on Tried & True, Suzanne's first best-of compilation, back in 1998 or 1999. It was also released as a single, with three remixes of the song as b-sides.


Unknown said...

Many thanks for this cool review: for a moment I thought I was there :-)
Just a curiosity: which songs from Tales she played solo in Pittsburg?
Many thanks in advance....

shanleymusic said...

Thanks for the compliment, Filippo! She played "Crack in the Wall" and "Fool's Complaint."

Yuval - No "Caramel" that night. She had encouraged requests on Twitter so maybe that probably shaped most of the set. Thanks for the correction about "Tried and True." I'll fix the post soon!

Thank you both for reading!

Unknown said...

What a fast response! Many thanks again :-)