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Opinion | An intimate evening with Suzanne Vega

Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega treats us to a live evening of her storied songs. Set in New York and themed on that city, it’s a not-to-be-missed performance

Suzanne Vega performing at The London Palladium on 28 September 2017.
Suzanne Vega performing at The London Palladium on 28 September 2017. (Getty Images)

The first Suzanne Vega song we heard, in the 1980s, was Luka. It quickly became an earworm and found regular play on All India Radio’s few, popular Western music programmes. Vega’s soft, understated style of singing folk-inspired songs that almost always told a story won her fame quite quickly—with Luka, of course, which was one of her biggest hits, but also with songs such as Tom’s Diner and Marlene On The Wall. Her first couple of records—the self-titled Suzanne Vega (1985) and Solitude Standing (1987)—and her live performances may have served, in fact, to revive the genre of singer-songwriters inspired by folk music in the 1980s.

It helped that Vega’s lyrics, mostly original, are always literate and often intimate. Her albums (nine studio recordings plus a few acoustic and live ones) have usually been well received and her music has inspired quite a few notable singer-songwriters over the three decades that she has been active. This month, she released a live album of songs that she had performed during a residency in 2019 at New York’s storied Café Carlyle. Having moved to New York as a child, Vega, 61, is the consummate New Yorker.

An invitation to play at the Café Carlyle, a cabaret and music club that is part of the Carlyle Hotel in the city’s upscale Upper East Side, is prestigious, for apart from the hotel’s well-heeled guests, the elite club has celebrity members. Music is an essential part of the café and a visit to it can be like a flashback to the jazz of the 1950s. For her performances, Vega chose mainly New York-themed songs; she has several in her repertoire. So while Luka and Tom’s Diner featured, so did Frank And Ava, about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner and their tumultuous relationship when they were together and lived near Central Park.

Titled An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories, the album (on which she is accompanied by guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards) is an intimate recording of 16 songs and includes some of Vega’s well-known, popular tunes as well as relatively newer ones such as Anniversary, which recalls the 9/11 terrorist attack on the city. Incidentally, the album was released on 11 September, the anniversary of the horrific attacks.

In between songs, Vega chats informally with the audience—sometimes describing a song she’s going to sing, at other times offering a bit of trivia connected to a song. Before launching into Tom’s Diner, she clarifies that the song takes place not in Brooklyn, “as sometimes rumoured", but on Broadway, where Tom’s Restaurant, referenced in the song, is located.

Most of the songs are stripped-down versions of Vega’s original recordings and the interplays between her voice and the instruments are delicately woven aural treats, particularly Leonard’s subdued, yet vivid, guitar licks. What is also striking is Vega’s calm and unperturbed presence during the performances at the Carlyle, where she appears comfortable in her own skin as well as with the audience. The aura of calm may possibly be due to her practice of Nichiren Buddhism since she was 16; she is a member of the sect’s association, Soka Gakkai International.

Some of the between-songs chatter is fun. Before singing Gypsy, she gives a brief background of how she moved to New York with her parents when she was two-and-a-half and wrote the song later at a camp in Adirondacks, New York, as a “folk-singing and disco dance counsellor"—these, she adds, are two great skills every girl needs.

There are nice surprises on the album. Such as Vega’s cover of Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side (also performed by the band Velvet Underground, which Reed was part of). In the intro to that song, she talks of the first time she saw Reed; she was 19 and had gone to watch him play at a club in New York. That show, Vega says, had a remarkable influence on her and the kind of songs she would go on to write. True to its title, An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories recreates the mood and atmosphere of Vega’s gigs at the famous venue. And while listening to it, it’s easy to visualize her interacting with the formally dressed, tony audience in a subtly lit room teeming with history.

While Vega has been an inspiration for many younger singers, what is less known is that her song Tom’s Diner, from her second album, Solitude Standing, was used as a test when the MP3 format was being created in 1993. The objective was to check whether the vocals and subtlety of Vega’s voice would be left unaffected by the compression technology. That test earned Vega the title “Mother of the MP3".

The thing about An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories is that although it is a new album that comes out 35 years after Vega released her first album, it can still serve as an introduction to her music for generations that may have missed her songs and recordings. And missing out on Suzanne Vega is not an option.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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