Thursday 3rd July 2014
1 hr 40 mins
Support: Chris Simmons (see below main review)
Suzanne Vega – vocals, guitar
Gerry Leonard – electric guitar, acoustic 12 string
Doug Yowell – drums, percussion
Fat Man and Dancing Girl
Marlene on The Wall
Crack In The Wall
Jacob & The Angel
Small Blue Thing
The Queen & The Soldier
Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain
The Laying On of Hands
Left of Centre
I Never Wear White
Ironbound / Fancy Poultry
Blood Makes Noise
Rosemary (Remember Me)
I had seen Suzanne Vega one and a little bit times before. The first time must have been just after Solitude Standing came out in 1987, because I recall her doing Luka. Those were the days when a concert required elaborate babysitting arrangements and we didn’t get out much. So we had to be really keen on seeing someone. The second little bit was supporting Leonard Cohen at Mercedes Benz World in 2009. They hadn’t done any concerts there before and it took a couple of hours to traverse the last couple of miles along a narrow lane. As the band shell was placed next to a mainline railway embankment I guess they didn’t do many afterwards. When we got parked at the far end of the car park, the Sat Nav said we were a mile away. The walk over a rutted field seemed further. We arrived to hear vague acoustic guitar and faraway voice (presumably Suzanne Vega) in the distance. We then queued ten minutes for the toilets (being bursting after being stuck in a hot car drinking water) and arrived just after she’d left. But we did hear her live, just a little bit while in the toilet line. What was so annoying is we had spent the entire journey reminding ourselves of her first two albums and were really looking forward to it. With the delay we’d played both twice.
Tom’s Diner exercised us for some time in the 1990s too. In our English Language Teaching textbooks, we sometimes had covers of songs suitable for teaching. We selected Tom’s Diner, because it is really hard to find a song using the present continuous (I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner / I am waiting for the man to pour the coffee) let alone has phrases like “It’s always nice to see you.” Anyway, after working on a teaching unit based on it, we found that THREE other textbooks had already had exactly the same idea, and so we abandoned our attempt.
I did the same re-listening this time around, and it doesn’t seem more than a quarter of a century since we saw her properly. My 1985 Suzanne Vega CD still has the £11.99 sticker on the back, so CDs in real terms have got considerably cheaper. My favourite tracks on that were always Cracking and Undertow. Suzanne Vega was too quickly classified as a “girl with an acoustic guitar” ignoring the arrangements or that the material with its semi-recited passages were far more akin to Laurie Anderson than (say) any folk singer. I don’t know what happened. When the CDs cover many shelves of space you can’t keep up with everyone, and we lost touch and just stopped buying new material, though I bought singles of Left of Centre and 99.9F. I have a feeling that too many did the same … it’s those first two albums on which her fame rests (see the flyers for the tour), although the stuff in between all sold well, and she had half a dozen minor hits in the 90s. Her 2014 album Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles was Top 40 in the UK. My hope list was Cracking, Marlene on The Wall, Undertow, Tom’s Diner, Luka and Gipsy. Four out of six isn’t bad.
Fuzzy iPhone photo – at least it shows how they lined up
To the show. The band line up as currently fashionable with drums extreme stage left facing inward, Suzanne Vega in the centre and Gerry Leonard on electric guitar stage right. These three are long-time collaborators and there is a great deal of empathy in the playing. They started with Fat Man and Dancing Girl (from 99.9°F) and the vocals were a little muffled for the first three songs. The guitar playing is exemplary, the drums too, and played quietly. No one is too loud, but it felt unbalanced to me. It’s an effect I’ve heard before with electric guitar on its own (see Glen Tillbrook recently or Richard Thompson). On Fat Man and Dancing Girl Suzanne did not add acoustic guitar and without her, the electric guitar sounded even more isolated and overbearing. In the numbers later where Gerry played 12-string acoustic guitar, it felt natural (The Queen & The Soldier, Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain). I did get used to the lone electric guitar, often on its own, as the show progressed, but I felt the need for bass, or cello, or keyboards, or another acoustic guitar to sit underneath it. The stuff he was doing was varied, fluid and brilliantly supportive of the song. I just feel uncomfortable with isolated electric guitar … in some numbers, the drummer left, and Suzanne didn’t play acoustic. It feels like there’s a big hole in the soundscape. Odd. It’s me, I think! Voice on its own works with natural sounds if there is only one instrument … acoustic guitar, piano, fiddle, double bass … I’ve seen them all work. But every time I’ve heard just electric guitar and voice with no other instruments it jars. I want to fill the gap. The subtle quiet percussion early on accentuated the imbalance … later when he was drumming louder and more vigorously it seemed more balanced between the instruments. It’s most unusual to complain that drums / percussion is too quiet.
The slight muzziness on vocals persisted through Marlene On The Wall … I think her mic was too low on both this and on Caramel (from Nine Objects of Desire), which they had corrected by the fourth song, Fool’s Complaint which sounded much clearer. She played three in a row from the latest album: Fool’s Complaint, Crack In The Wall and Jacob and The Angel, and I came straight home to order a copy. Three fabulous melodies with immediately appealing lyrics, great guitar and percussion. I instantly loved all three songs
Small Blue Thing was an early hit and got immediate recognition applause, deservedly for a great song. I loved her long autobiographical intro to Gypsy which she did solo, demonstrating what an excellent guitarist she is too. She sounded so good unaccompanied. She does good intros. She could raise the percentage of chat, as the audience hangs on every word and she tells a tale with humour.
The Queen & The Soldier had Gerry Leonard back on acoustic 12-string and the sound of two acoustic guitars meshed together superbly on this long ballad (in the folk sense), which was on her first album. Another engaging intro talk led into Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain another from Tales from The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles. She stayed with the album for The Laying On Of Hands and I’m thinking FIVE great tracks on that album. There was a diversion for her hit Left of Centre with Gerry ably making up for the absence of Joe Jackson’s piano. Then the sixth from the new one, the rousing and immediately catchy I Never Wear White. Half a dozen from a ten track album exudes confidence, and she’s right to put her faith in it because this song went down a storm.
Then we were into a trio from the early days, Some Journey from the first album, then the two big ones: Luka and Tom’s Diner. Luka is simply one of the best songs of its decade. Melody, singing, lyric, thematic content. It was a long rocking Tom’s Diner with tremendous drum work from Doug Yowell.
The encores, I noticed peeping quickly at the set list on the mixing desk as we walked out, were not as programmed. She started with Ironbound / Fancy Poultry from Solitude Standing which she said she wanted to try out because their next stop was Portugal, and it has the lines about Portuguese women. Then she asked for requests and got Blood Makes Noise which seemed to surprise her, and she hesitated wondering how it would sound in ”this big boomy room” but she went for it and the energy was just right for the moment. In Liverpool followed from the same album, 99.9°F and extends the story she told about Gypsy. With the opening Fat Man & The Dancing Girl that made three songs from 99.9°F. The finisher was a lovely Rosemary (Remember Me) which was a single in 1999 and is on her Best of … album. It was an excellent show, but I still feel they need a bass player, or cellist, or something to fill the middle and bottom of the sound.
So … Tales from The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles – 6 tracks, Suzanne Vega / Solitude Standing – 4 tracks each, 99.9F – 3 tracks. She is justly proud of the latest … a vinyl copy was pinned to the table with her cup of water, facing the audience. Get one!
* LATER NOTE: Not only does the album have bass guitar, but it’s mainly Gail Ann Dorsey, plus a couple from Tony Levin. It’s produced by Gerry Leonard.
Brackets show I don’t know the title. This will be corrected.
(Don’t Get Me Started)
Up The Junction
(You Are Here)
The Deepest Wound
He is an exquisite guitarist with a beautiful tone and excellent material, some co-written with Chris Difford. He also got a superb sound immediately, but when he got to the second song, decided to test the classical hall acoustic and play and sing unplugged in front of the mic. it’s a big hall, and it worked (I was only in the 6th row but people further back said it worked too). The guitar was a bit quiet unplugged but his voice rang round the room, and I’ve often seen people fall on their face in that symphony concert hall by being over-amplified, and he really proved it can work the other way.
He returned to the mic and plugged in his guitar lead for the third one. The Watchmaker is a Chris Difford co-write, with fascinating lyrics, and it led into a cover of Squeeze’s Up The Junction – I always think new artists should put one well-known cover in the set. In the last two songs he took sections in front of the mic again. He had sussed that classical orchestras and choirs do it unamplified … and the hall acoustic can take it.
Very good support act, and yes, I bought his CD.