Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega

I was lucky enough to win two fantastic tickets to a show by Suzanne Vega at the McPherson Playhouse on Sunday, the 30th of January. Thanks CFUV for holding the draw and picking my number 🙂 It was not a show I would have gone to otherwise Also on the billet were finalists from the Victoria Idol competition (music as a competitive sport, my favourite kind) and Jon Baglo.

The Entree

I have not listened to much of Suzanne Vega’s music before, except of course, Luka and Tom’s Diner, which I guess everyone has heard (yes, she did play those songs, thanks for asking). I also have 99.9F somewhere in my digital music collection, it’s good! Her current incarnation as an artist involves her recording and touring behind stripped down and reinvented versions of her back catalogue. Why?

“I don’t own those other recordings,” she told the (Wall Street) Journal. “I don’t own the masters. Those are owned by A&M Records and Blue Note, and I’m not with them anymore. I wanted to own a physical copy of my own back catalogue. In this economy, it’s important to own what you make. If I tour for the next 20 years, I have recordings I can sell at concerts and people can buy them directly.

She has released Parts 1 and 2 of Close-Up, a four part set of recordings. Victoria was her only gig in Canada, and am I glad I was there, twitterific enough to enter CFUV’s draw for free tickets, and lucky enough to actually win, thanks @CFUV! Vega has a down to earth style of singing that brings out the essential emotions of whatever she is singing about. Her lyrics are smart, witty, self referential and always engaging. Her voice sounded natural, her singing seemingly effortless, yet soulful, funny when she needed to be, sad when she needed to be, it was a very good performance. I have not listened to her music much, so I don’t know how different these productions are from the way she’s done them in the past. It worked very well in a live setting and now, I would love to listen to the new studio versions! As an assured performer, her storytelling between songs was quite funny, she rambled for quite a bit about a song she wrote when she was 16 about a brief fling at summer camp, a story that involved the secret society of Leonard Cohen listeners, the differences between Canadians, Americans and Brits, and lots of other asides! She poked a bit of fun at herself for only writing sad songs about depressing places (Liverpool, Newark, NJ) and not about beautiful places like Victoria, she very easily laughed off a glitch on her second song.

Vega was on stage with an acoustic guitar, and Gerry Leonard (aka Spookyghost) on electric guitar. Though to just call it electric guitar is a bit limiting. He had a whole set of floor pedals, and a stack of rack mounted effects to his right as well. He was playing a beautiful pearly white double cutaway semi-hollowbody with stereo output (Paul Reed Smith?). The production was sophisticated, restrained, thoughtful, and really fleshed out Suzanne Vega’s voice and skilled finger pick acoustic style guitar. It was great accompaniment, always complementary, never overwhelming, but capable of quickly breaking out of the restraint for an excellent solo or three. He was able to produce a wall of sound at times with the effective use of looping and tonal layering. He’s also geeky enough to detail his gear setup, check it out! Anyway, a lot of music was produced by two people and you did not miss the lack of percussion one bit

She came back for an encore and did a very funny song about writers from her upcoming off-Broadway musical Carson McKellars sings about love, makes me want to see it.

If she is ever in your neighbourhood, do go and catch her show, you’ll definitely enjoy it a lot. I was not a big fan before the show, I will listen to more of her music for sure after the show, which I guess is the best compliment for a live performance!

The Side

Jon Baglo rounded out the opening set with a virtuoso guitar performance. He, held me (and I suspect the rest of the audience) with an indescribable technique, a mixture of percussion and touch play/tapping on acoustic guitar. The right hand keeps moving, sometimes playing a beat, sometimes strumming very close to the left hand, sometimes just tapping the strings, it was quite a show, a pity he only played one song. He’s a skilled musician.

The appetizer

It takes a combination of courage, skill, presence and experience to open successfully for a famous performer at the McPherson Playhouse with just an acoustic guitar in your hand, let alone a capella. The Victoria Idol performers all showed courage in spades, vocal skills, some presence, and some even hinted at emerging individuality in instrument playing. They also mostly featured original compositions. But, they are currently not capable of holding an audience with such a minimalist production. This is not an open mic, or an  intimate coffee shop, it’s a big hall that needs to be filled. In fact, some of the better performances featured more accompaniment, like an upright bass and violin, and some very nicely done harmonies on backing vocals. Overall, the production was too stripped down and they could not quite pull it off.

What I would have done is brought together a few experienced musicians to back them and bulk their sound up, so their yet growing skills on instruments and vocals could melt into the music and enable us to pay more attention to the songs they had written. It would also have given them some experience with building songs, production, etc. Their performances lacked punch (hard to sound punchy without percussion!), and their singing sounded a bit strained and derivative, their natural singing voices did not come through. I don’t fault them, it’s the enormity of the task they were faced with, having to open for Suzanne Vega with just a guitar in your hand. One performer actually sang a song a capella, which I found a bit ambitious. Yes, you have a decent singing voice, but no, it is not yet good enough to carry a room bigger than a coffee shop, sorry! There’s no reason it needs to be, music is about collaboration, music is about making the whole more than the sum of the parts.

Image of Suzanne Vega from her website.