Pop: She's always in the kitchen at parties

SUZANNE VEGA SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE LONDON

DO YOU like Leonard Cohen? That was the young Suzanne Vega's litmus test for whether a relationship was going to last. The correct answer was neither "Yes" nor "No", but "in certain moods". An unadorned affirmative alerted you to have a straitjacket handy.

Do you like Suzanne Vega? When she sidled on to the scene in the mid- Eighties, a product of the acoustic clubs of Greenwich Village, she had to be more than the sum of her parts; along with Tracy Chapman, she was the keeper of an acoustic flame, oxygen-starved amid the synthetic nastiness so prevalent then. A penchant for Vega, therefore, represented a blow against artifice.

Her fey New Ageiness used to be an unfortunate distraction, but at the Empire on Tuesday, accompanied only by her regular bassist, Mike Visceglia, she demonstrated a dry, metropolitan wit and enjoyed a laconic but intimate rapport with her audience. It was like being in the kitchen at a party with Vega and other old friends.

"We've waited for ages for you," shouted a woman who was the aural spitting image of Ruby Wax. "Where are you from?" Vega inquired.

"New York."

"I thought so."

Vega kicked off with "Marlene on the Wall", her very first hit, but Ruby wasn't having any of it:

"When are we going to hear your new songs? Are they on sale? Can I buy them?"

Vega took a deep breath and smiled ruefully.

"I'm going to play the new songs at the end," she said in the tones of a laid-back infant-teacher, "the old songs at the beginning and, at the moment," - she glanced up at Ruby - "we're rapidly approaching the middle."

What Ruby failed to appreciate is that with a greatest-hits album out (containing the obligatory couple of new songs), this was always going to be a retrospective evening, though to ears relatively untutored in her work, the newer material easily stands up. The erotic bossa nova of "Caramel" from the 1996 Nine Objects of Desire album, for example, with its Pink Pantherish bass-line and sultry, Juliette Greco feel, suits her smoky voice perfectly.

The best thing all night, though, was "Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)", from 1992's 99.9F, fresh and vibrant, insistent and urgent. Unlike most pop lyricists, she has a feel for language - in fact, her pared-down syntax and arresting images have been compared to those of Raymond Carver. And though most of her songs are in the first person, they are far more than mere confessionals.

One between-song revelation was that she had been an Avon lady in New York City for two weeks, in combat fatigues and no make-up, while the Leonard Cohen reference came during a long, involved account of a love- affair she had when she lived in Liverpool. He loved Cohen all the time - she should have been warned. An unreserved passion for Suzanne Vega would be a far happier prospect.

Chris Maume

Arts and Entertainment

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