Café Carlyle, NYC, March 15, 2017
Reviewed by Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes
As a leading figure in the 1980s folk revival, native New Yorker Suzanne Vega needs no introduction. With seven Grammy nominations and seven million albums sold over 25 years, Vega is beloved by fans and critics alike. But at her Café Carlyle debut, the iconic songwriter proved she’s as comfortable performing to a smallish crowd at the elegant Upper East Side room forever associated with Bobby Short as she is at a rock concert with several thousand fans in attendance.
Delayed one day due to snow (surely the reason the room was not over half-full), the show seamlessly blends new material from her recent release, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers, with what she calls “old, very old, and kinda old” songs. Taking the stage in a tailored suit in her signature color—black, of course—about which she co-wrote “I Never Wear White” with musical director and guitarist Gerry Leonard, Vega performed three familiar songs in swift succession: “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” (Vega/Mitchell Froom), “Marlene on the Wall,” and “Small Blue Thing” (both by Vega).
If you’ve never heard one of your musical idols perform live, you never know how he or she will sound. The albums have become so deeply a part of your consciousness, the live versions sometimes disappoint, either because they so depart from the album or because the voice just doesn’t hold up. (Auto-tune has something to do with this, I think.) But Vega’s voice has precisely the same naked, soul-baring purity when she’s standing 20 feet away from you in 2017 as it does on Suzanne Vega (1985) or Solitude Standing (1987).
Big sound comes from a small stage, with Vega performing the first five songs only with Leonard, who alternates between acoustic and electric guitar throughout the show. The excellent Jason Hart joins the two on the sixth number, playing piano, string synth, and synth bass.
Many female singer-songwriters cite Joni Mitchell as their spiritual musical mother. But only Suzanne Vega, in my view, matches Mitchell’s sophistication and depth. “Cerebral” often carries with it the connotation of emotional sterility. Like Mitchell, Vega’s lyrics are driven by intellect and verbal acuity, yet, even at their most narrative and conceptual, they manage to pierce the soul.
The backstory of “Gypsy,” written (incomprehensibly) when Vega was 18, deepens the meaning of lyrics heard many times over. Vega, a disco-dancing, folk-singing counselor at a camp in the Berkshires, fell in love with a Leonard Cohen-loving Dadaist painter from Liverpool. Not wanting to seem like a medicated depressive when the young man asked her if she liked Cohen, Vega replied, “Only in certain moods.” He, it turns out, liked Cohen in every mood. A six-week love affair of course ensued, after which she was left only with his bandana—and the inspiration for “Gypsy.” Years later, when in England on a world tour, Vega wrote “Liverpool” about the same man. She was reading Hunchback of Notre Dame, explaining with characteristic wit, “as one does on a world tour.”
Vega doesn’t break out the new material until one-third through the show because, as a fan herself, she knows that people want to hear the songs they know and love. But the songs inspired by Carson McCullers are so lyrically interesting and melodically appealing that Vega could have gotten away with playing them right off the bat. They’re quintessentially Suzanne Vega with a jazzy and explicitly literary twist. And who better than the author of the “very long, very sad” story song, “The Queen and the Soldier,” to co-write a musical about a racially and sexually progressive Southern writer and New York transplant? Vega’s production company is, after all, called Amanuensis Productions.
Vega and her longtime collaborator, the Tony-winning Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho) evoke the courage, humor, and mischief of McCullers in “Harper Lee,” which compresses an astounding amount of literary history into on whimsical song. “New York Is My Destination” will resonate with anyone who escaped a small or conservative town to find, or at least pursue, freedom in New York. The “We of Me” and “Annemarie” tell the story of McCullers’ complex romantic attachments. And the show’s concluding numbers, performed after a return to “old stuff,” dazzle with their sheer beauty.
Donning the top hat she wore early on to sing “Marlene on the Wall,” Vega breathes new life into “Tom’s Diner.” And as many times as one has heard “Luka,” the isolation of an abused child comes through with excruciating clarity after “Some Journey.” It’s a long way from 109th Street, where Vega grew up, to the Carlyle on 76th Street. But that’s New York, a place of boundless possibility, where journeys both begin and come to rest.
Suzanne continues at the Carlyle through March 25.