Suzanne Vega, Barbican, London
Wednesday 17 October 2012
"In America, we feel a pressure to be cheerful," quips Suzanne Vega, a songwriter not renowned for her chirpy material. However here celebrating the 25th anniversary of her finest album, Solitude Standing,she appears relaxed and engaging.
The New Yorker amiably admits "some of her songs are more intense than others", and provides a host of droll anecdotes: Prince dancing to "Luka" in Minneapolis, her love of the 1930s surrealist Paul Éluard and how she fell for a young man in Liverpool because he loved Leonard Cohen. That same old boyfriend "is here tonight", she claims.
The pioneering folk-poet blazed a softly spoken trail for a legion of breathy, observational acoustic female singer-songwriters in the 1980s, most notably Tracey Chapman, Michelle Shocked and Edie Brickell.
The nimble lyricist specialised in the sort of “coffee shop” ditties that Phoebe “Smelly Cat” Buffay from Friends tried to perfect. Tracks such as “Gypsy” ("You come from far away/ With pictures in your eyes/ Of coffee shops and morning streets/ In the blue and silent sunrise”) and the outstanding “Tom’s Diner” (memorably re-worked by DNA in 1990), both from Solitude Standing, which the 53-year-old plays in its entirety tonight.
Vega’s output has been fairly consistent since her 1980s heyday – she released the accomplished records Songs in Red and Gray and Beauty& Crime in the Noughties – but she’s never repeated the huge success of 1985’s Suzanne Vega and Solitude Standing. Perhaps that’s why the musician has decided to re-record (it’s all the rage at the moment, with everyone from Bryan Ferry to Jeff Lynne doing it) her back catalogue on four themed albums: Love Songs, People and Places, State of Being and Songs of Family. It’s the equivalent of laboriously re-collecting all of your old childhood football stickers.
Nevertheless, Vega's voice has matured exquisitely, particularly on "Caramel" where she's redolent of Nina Simone, and her sultry country twang on "Calypso". It's just a shame there's the odd dirge, the occasional longueur, which is always a peril when an artist has to perform every song off an old album.
Tonight is ultimately redeemed by Vega's warm personality and three standout tracks, the evocative breakthrough hit "Marlene on the Wall", "Luka" and her "outsider" anthem, "Left of Centre", which she wrote for film Pretty in Pink. She confesses that "I wrote it about the lead character, but I'll tell you a secret it's my point of view".
That's very nice to hear and this groundbreaking singer, with a talent for a killer line ("You just don't argue anymore"), warrants the whoops and standing ovation she receives tonight.
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