CITY HALLS, GLASGOW
Review by Mark Brown
When Bob Dylan picked up his electric guitar in Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, to a solitary cry of “Judas!”, he pioneered a folk-rock fusion which would spawn generations of successors. One of those is Suzanne Vega.
The 54-year-old New Yorker arrived on the penultimate night of Glasgow’s huge roots festival Celtic Connections flanked by versatile Irish guitarist (and sometime David Bowie collaborator) Gerry Leonard. Together they offered an acoustic and electric set which spanned the three decades of Vega’s career, from her eponymous debut album in 1985 to her new, garrulously entitled record Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (a Tarot-inspired title which was released in the UK on February 3).
Donning her latest sartorial motif, a splendid black top hat, Vega’s performance was characterised by both the elegant whimsy which has always existed in her work and a charming, relaxed confidence which comes with 30 years of live appearances. Fans were promised a set combining new material with much-loved numbers from the back catalogue, and so it was that the gig opened with a bold, slightly up-tempo rendition of, perhaps Vega’s most famous song, Marlene on the Wall.
The singer-songwriter may have opted to up the pace of this poetic favourite over the years, but close your eyes, and one could easily imagine one was hearing her perform circa 1985. Her voice, simultaneously self-assured and soothingly tranquil, is every bit as mellifluous as it was in her Eighties heyday.
In a set which contained the beautiful, teenage love song Gypsy (with its gorgeously simple chorus, “hold me like a baby that will not fall asleep”) and evergreens such as Left of Center and Tom’s Diner, the new material sometimes struggled to convince. For instance, Jacob and the Angel (a song so new Vega sang it with lyric sheet in hand) may well be intended as an allegory, but sounds uncharacteristically averse to metaphor as it spins out its Biblical narrative.
Other songs from the new album – such as Fool’s Complaint and Song of the Stoic – are more lyrically satisfying. Yet none of the most recent material comes close to the heartbreaking Luka (from the 1987 album Solitude Standing), which stands alongside the late Lou Reed’s Caroline Says as one of popular music’s most powerful denunciations of domestic violence.
Touring England until February 7. For tour information, visit: suzannevega.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 4, 2014
© Mark Brown