33 Blocks: Suzanne Vega at The Café Carlyle

Suzanne Vega played her first shows (“debuted” is the more glamorous word) at The Café Carlyle on Wednesday March 15th 2017. A bit of messy weather in New York pushed the opening from the 14th.

The reviews were uniformly positive (Theatre Pizzazz, The Huffington Post, The New York Times for example) and my own response to the performances was a combination of sheer enjoyment and more than a bit of head-shaking wonder at the cosmic alignment of the planets and stars that had her playing in this room at this time.

By this I mean that it’s the perfect room in the perfect spot in Manhattan to play this particular set of songs, especially those from Lover, Beloved: Songs From an Evening With Carson McCullers. Some of the details at the Carlyle might have changed over the years but I would wager good money that if McCullers herself materialized today in the lobby she would not see much out-of-place from the days when she may have visited it 60 years ago or so.

Seeing a show here is a bit like wandering onto the set of a film —  it looks and operates so much like the fantasy of a jazz café on the upper East Side of Manhattan that I wondered whether this was a set left over from Stanley Kubrick’s New York sets for Eyes Wide Shut.

For all the performances, Suzanne was backed by her musical director, Gerry Leonard, he who is wizard of all things guitar, and by keyboardist Jason Hart who played both synthesizer as well as an old school baby grand piano. On other shows (mainly Fridays and Saturdays) the group also included combinations of bassist George Farmer (who, continuing the acoustic theme, played upright bass); Will Holshouser on accordion; drummer Doug Yowell.

Hearing the keyboards was a great treat on songs like “Luka,” “Left of Center,” “The Queen and the Soldier,” and especially on “Annemarie,” the performance of which drew emotions from Suzanne of an intensity that I had never quite heard before in other performances of the song.

This version of “The Queen and the Soldier” (recorded on St. Patrick’s Day) is noteworthy for the lovely piano and organ-like accompaniment by keyboardist Jason Hart as well as the 12-string guitar of Gerry Leonard.

"The Queen and the Soldier"

I like this version of “Annemarie” because it not only features the beautiful piano line but also a deep cello sound from bassist George Farmer bowing the stand-up bass.

"Annemarie"

“Left of Center” is added here because it is the first time I’d heard it with piano.

"Left of Center"

We must add “Luka” not only because its the 30th anniversary of the album Solitude Standing but also because this version features the full band.

"Luka"

 

But for me the quintessential number for this engagement was “New York is My Destination” because it swings like a jazz number should at The Café Carlyle. This version features the full band from the Saturday March 18th performance.

"New York is My Destination"

Within the McCullers play the song serves to illuminate Carson’s dreams as well as evoke post-war New York City. It accomplishes this very well but it was also, for me, the perfect symbol of how far Suzanne has travelled in her career thus far. She mentioned in performance how special playing at The Carlyle was because she had lived for several years as a child on East 109th Street, 33 blocks north of The Carlyle which is at 76th, east of Madison and west of Lexington and Park Avenues. Back in the day those 33 blocks must have seemed very far indeed.

I had never been to east 109th Street but on Saturday morning took the 6 line up there to mark those 33 blocks.

 

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