sat 25/05/2024

Suzanne Vega, Royal Festival Hall review - the years melt away | reviews, news & interviews

Suzanne Vega, Royal Festival Hall review - the years melt away

Suzanne Vega, Royal Festival Hall review - the years melt away

Celebrating old friends Tom, Luka and Marlene

Suzanne VegaEhud Lazin

It’s almost 40 years, but I still vividly remember the excitement of hearing Suzanne Vega for the first time. Singer-songwriters had always mattered to me, even though I grew up in the vacuous era of glamrock and insipid teen idols such as David and Donny. Nor did much of what followed speak to me. Suddenly, a new voice was getting airplay.

I still have all the old vinyl.

“Queen of the bedsit blues” she was inevitably dubbed, but Vega opened the door for a new generation of young guitar-playing women, American and English, many of them now largely forgotten. She emerged, as many of her forebears had, from the Greenwich Village scene, part of the late Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk movement that coalesced around the much-missed Cornelia Street Café. It was on the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, a cooperative recording project, that she made her debut. (In 2002, Smithsonian released a compilation, Fast Folk: A Community of Singers & Songwriters, which features Vega’s “Gypsy”, alongside contributions from fellow Fast Folkies such as Shawn Colvin, David Massengill, Richard Shindell and Dave van Ronk.)

“Gypsy” featured in the enthralling concert that closed Vega’s UK tour, the story behind the Liverpool-born camp counsellor who inspired the 18-year-old when she was in the Adirondacks, presiding over the incongruous coupling of disco and folk music, expanded into an engaging riff. For ninety minutes, she and guitarist Gerry Leonard played their way through a set of mostly familiar songs (many reworked) to a capacity audience who looked like they’d grown up with them, spent their grant money on those first LPs and pushed them way up the charts.

She opened – of course – with “Marlene On the Wall”, the famous top hat springing into shape with a satisfying snap. The years dropped away, and she’s into “Small Thing”, another early delicacy. She puts her beautiful Furch acoustic aside and dances to the deliciously smoky bossa nova beat of “Caramel”. The story of “Gypsy”  is completed by “In Liverpool”, written when she was on tour in the city. (She and the gypsy met up again after he'd sent her flowers on her 45th birthday in London – both couples are now friends.)
Vega delivered a well-paced set, “The Queen and the Solider” giving way to a raucous, up-tempo hommage to Elvis Costello, for example, a number which gives Leonard the chance to get down and dirty guitar-wise. Between them, they strum up a storm, the Irish-born guitarist’s use of loops and special effects giving the impression of a band, not just two musicians. They have worked together for many years now and are perfectly in sync.

It was a warm and intimate evening of highlights, among them a new and as yet unrecorded song, “Last Train from Mariupol”, written in response to the Ukraine war. “Luka” and Tom’s Diner” closed the show and then, because it was the last British date, we were treated to three encores – “Walk On the Wild Side”, “Blood Makes Noise”, Leonard’s guitar appropriately screaming and discordant, and finally “Rosemary”, a gentle and poignant song that returned us to where Vega’s journey had begun.

Sam Lee (pictured above right) was the opening act – not perhaps the most obvious bedfellow, and the number of empty seats suggests that many of Vega’s audience either didn’t know who he was or didn’t much care. A pity, because he of course delivered a remarkable set, working with James Keay on keyboards and Bernard Butler on electric guitar. It included “Awake, Awake Sweet England”, “John Barleycorn”, and “Lovely Molly”. The last of the song collectors, Lee has a beautifully resonant voice but the music, and the style, is something of an acquired taste. He concluded with the recommendation to look up at the sky as we left the Royal Festival Hall: “Venus and Jupiter are hugging together tonight.”

I forgot to check, but on stage there was plenty of planetary alignment.

Liz Thomson's website

Vega opened the door for a new generation of young guitar-playing women, American and English

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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