Suzanne Vega played two, sold-out shows at Space in Evanston Illinois on Friday November 21st. The 9:30 show in particular surpassed every expectation (it probably was the single best performance by Vega I have ever seen) and was, in your correspondent’s opinion, a capstone to what is, at least up till now, the most significant, successful period in Vega’s career, even more so than her first breakthrough in 1985.
This is not to say that the years in between lay fallow and were without artistic and commercial accomplishments, but rather to make the case that although her commercial and artistic breakthrough was and remains a singular accomplishment, in many respects what she has built over the past 5 years was perhaps tougher: creating her own label (with its attendant business administrivia); recording the four-volume Close-Up Series; writing and mounting the play Carson McCullers Talks About Love; touring; writing and recording her best album yet, Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.
All of this occurred after what, to an outsider, looked like a shabby, unceremonious ending of her contract by Blue Note, and during a time of the biggest changes in the music industry since the 1920s and radio. (Curiously, just as the song “Tom’s Diner” began its strange life as a rogue meme in 1990 during Suzanne’s first success, so too in 2014 it once again has barged its way into public life through Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries,” as though it were concerned Vega’s new success might leave it behind.)
Although one never hears of a bad Vega concert experience (disregard of the audience, no-shows, churlish behavior etc.) and the musical quality has remained unfailingly high over the years for both musicianship (especially accompanists Mike Visceglia and Gerry Leonard) and soundboard, the concerts of 2014 were especially noteworthy for their flow and range. Flow, in that one senses that Vega and Leonard know they are onto a good thing — that they have a great set of material from which to draw and the means to nail down each song as they envision it — thus imparting to us the joy of witnessing a collaborative mastery. Range, as in the contrast between the swagger and rumble of a “Blood Makes Noise” or “I Never Wear White” with the delicacy of songs like “The Queen and the Soldier” or “Calypso.”
Which brings us to a couple of highlights of this set: their performance of “Portrait of the Knight of Wands” and “Some Journey.” “Some Journey,” from her first album, has a driving rhythm that gives the song a tension like a relentless train barreling down upon us. In performance, Vega and Leonard drive the song with their guitars until, with great effect, the guitars snap silent with Marine precision, and gently release their grip on the song with a strum. Even when you know its coming, it’s cool.
“Portrait of the Knight of Wands” from Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles was my highlight of the evening and joins the pantheon of Suzanne Vega masterpieces. It is a performance that is the musical equivalent of a 70 mm widescreen film — evocative, magisterial — with a dark landscape captured in an eye-of-God aerial shot by Stanley Kubrick. Its denouement, an instrumental fade-out, is one of the great musical phrases in her music, on par with “In Liverpool.”
Whether you are a long-time fan of her music or have only a passing familiarity, I suggest that it is important to see Vega as soon as the chance arises; do not take for granted these opportunities to see pros at the top of their games.