Monday, 28 May 2012

No feet of clay

Finally caught up with another of my long-term musical heroes last night. Previously I've seen R.E.M. and David Byrne (ex- of Talking Heads), and this time it was the turn of Suzanne Vega.


I've been following her since I first got a taste back in 1992 while I was working out at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She released her album 99.9F° in early autumn that year, but in the run-up to this a couple of tracks made it onto the rotation of KROQ, our lab's favoured radio station that summer. Now, an alarming 20 years later - but only 3 more albums later - I finally got a chance to hear what she's like live.

On which point, I have to say that, going in, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. She's a bit of an odd artist in that she comes out of a somewhat folky place, but has also at times embraced - after being embraced by - an almost industrial aesthetic. I arrived on the scene when she first took the plunge with a more production-heavy style, so have always quite liked it. But I'm also aware that she still tends to folky, and has even begun a project in the last couple of years to re-record many of her songs in more pared-back arrangements. As such, I did wonder how songs that I've loved for years might turn out.


Fortunately, I needn't have worried in the least. Though she performed with only a single accompanying musician, and occasionally did numbers solo, she still managed to pull a pretty impressive range from her songs. In the main, the arrangements were unsurprisingly pared down, but they didn't suffer for it in the least. Even my (probably) favourite song, the infectiously upbeat if surprisingly short When Heroes Go Down, came off brilliantly. Only one or two songs suffered from being (to my mind) pared back a bit too much, and even then it was still enjoyable to hear new interpretations. And with one song, Blood Makes Noise, the arrangement was actually amped-up (via a pedal-based sequencer?) to something almost more industrial than the original.

On this point about arrangements, one particularly interesting choice was how Vega chose to handle one of her most famous songs, Tom's Diner. This was originally an a cappella song when it was recorded back in the early 1980s, but it's probably more famous now for a 1990s remix that reworked it almost into a dance track. I've even got a cover version of the song by R.E.M. that covers this remix rather than the original. Anyway, last night Vega herself travelled this same route, and performed the song in its remix flavour rather than in its more stripped-back original flavour. I guess that she now prefers this version too, or must at least prefer performing it this way - certainly it went down well with the audience.

Leaving aside her old familiars, Vega introduced a number of new (to me) songs. Most were actually from a play that she co-wrote recently on the life of the US writer Carson McCullers. When she introduced these, my first reaction was to get rather apprehensive because of this stage source, but, again, I needn't have gotten concerned. They were a little too, well, factual compared to her usual, more everyman-ish work, but they were still really good. And quite funny too. Curiously, she mentioned an imminent and wholly new album in passing, but I don't think we got anything from it. That'll have to wait.

Anyway, overall another personal icon survives intact. I should be getting used to this by now, but I can't seem to get over an instinctive "shields-up" response to ward off potential - but unfulfilled - disappointment. What was also pleasing was Vega's manner and her chatting with the crowd. She was easy, amusing and even apologised mid-song when she got a lyric wrong at one point (we'd never have noticed - it was Blood Makes Noise!). So it was nice to have my 20 year crush validated. ;-)

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