There is always something warm and inviting about walking into the Palais Theatre on a cold winter’s night. The plush red velvet and the well worn leather seats always hold the promise of a special show for me and tonight’s performance from Suzanne Vega and her band in celebration of her landmark
albums, 1987’s Solitude Standing and 1992’s 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees was no exception.
Opening for the night was local singer songwriter Deborah Conway in acoustic mode together with her husband and long time musical collaborator Willy Zygier. A rousing version of her song ‘Alive and Brilliant’ from her 1993 album ‘Bitch Epic’ was akin to an affirmation of sorts as Conway proceeded to
play a series of songs from more recent times, most notably ‘Everybody’s Begging from 2016 and ‘Stories of Ghosts’ from 2013. The latter as Conway wryly explained, was an album of songs based on The Old Testament from an agnostic Jewish perspective. The thing I have always enjoyed and admired
about Conway’s songs are their elements of self-reflection and honesty.
Tonight’s performance was a retrospective snapshot of a career that continues to expand its repertoire and as the closing song Serpent’s Tooth, dedicated to anyone who has ever raised a teenager, came to a conclusion, the familiarity of the old and the excitement of the new were fully realised.
When Suzanne Vega and her band emerged from the wings of the Palais stage, I was curious to hear how the iconic ‘Solitude Standing’ album would be served. Despite being a child of the ‘80s, it’s an album of which the production values transcend the bombastic pop couture that surrounded its
release. The opening track for the album and the evening, as expected was a’ Capella ‘Tom’s Diner’. The song harks back to Vega’s days observing life from the now famous Tom’s Restaurant in Morningside New York City. As she stood on the sparsely lit mark at the front of the stage I felt like I had just dropped the needle on track 1 side 1 back in my family lounge room as a 17 year old with my head between the speakers. Hearing Vega tell the stories behind these songs added an extra layer to the familiarity most people in the audience held for them. Her incredible band led by Irishman and David Bowie cohort Gerry Leonard, long-time side man Mike Visceglia who played bass on the album all those years ago and drummer Yuval Lion, recreated the songs from both albums faithfully and with flair. It was actually amazing to hear the epic soundscapes Leonard was able to produce from just one guitar. The swells of sounds ebbed and flowed as he picked out the subtle nuances of every song, occasionally joined on acoustic guitar by Vega with her unique and distinctive picking style.
As she explained the backgrounds to some of the songs it became apparent that her story telling is obviously what called her to make her mark as a folk artist early on in her career. ‘Ironbound’ refers to a particular area of Newark New Jersey where she used to go with her then boyfriend to get his silver Jaguar serviced. Her most famous song ‘Luka’, about domestic violence came out at a time when such subject matter was rarely spoken of let alone immortalised in song and as I listened to her distinctive vocal delivery come at me from the child’s perspective I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in the audience had named a child after that song. The other story that stuck with me from Friday night’s performance surrounded the song ‘Gypsy’. Vega explained that she wrote this song at the age of 18 about her first big summer romance with a boy from Liverpool, home to the Beatles and as she described, exotic cooked breakfasts. ‘Wooden Horse (Casper Hauser’s Song)’ closed out the ‘Solitude Standing’ section of the show and highlighted some amazing and epic drumming by Yuval Lion. She told of how the song was originally a drum track reflecting the influence of Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ album, which inspired her to writer the lyrics and melodies over it in the studio. In no time the band launched into ‘Blood Makes Noise’ which was the breakthrough track from the second feature album of the night ’99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees’. From a time when loops and samples were rarely heard in mainstream music it was a departure from Vega’s traditional folk style.
Hearing the highlights of these two bodies of work back to back cemented the fact that Vega’s vocal style and delivery is the unique element that brings everything together despite the extremes in production between them. The simple stage set up and the minimalistic lighting was the perfect way for Vega and her band to present this selection of songs from her vast repertoire, allowing the music and lyrics to be the centrepiece of the evening. Special guest guitarist Richard Pleasance, who coincidentally produced Deborah Conway’s breakthrough solo album ‘String of Pearls’, joined the band for a stirring rendition of ‘In Liverpool’, the sequel to ‘Gypsy’ about the summer camp romance, and the short, sharp, jangly ‘When Heroes Go Down’, for which he played guitar on the original studio album.
In addition to the bulk of the two feature albums, Vega performed the fan favourite ‘Marlena on the Wall’ from her Lenny Kaye produced self titled album as the first of three encore songs. The second was the stand-out song of the evening ‘Left Of Centre’ from the soundtrack to the John Hughes movie
‘Pretty In Pink’ This version featured Vega on vocals accompanied only by bass player Mike Visceglia who blew everyone away with his melodic and passionate playing. As expected the show closed with a reprise of ‘Tom’s Diner’ in the style of the DNA Remix which has brought the song back into the
listening fray of a new generation. The thing that works with these album anniversary tours is that there is no messing around with experimental new tracks that nobody has heard before. Tonight we heard the top tracks of two classic albums and some well loved bonus tracks. Looking around the crowd it was obvious that everyone left happy knowing that they were delivered what they had come to see – great songs delivered as the writer and producer intended them to be heard.