Source: The Arts Desk / https://theartsdesk.com / By Liz Thomson /
Suzanne Vega sprang to fame 35 years ago, her eponymous debut one of the last albums we bought in vinyl before the advent of that new-fangled format of aluminium aspic. From it came “Marlene on the Wall”, the video an MTV hit. “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, from Solitude Standing, Vega’s second outing, cemented her reputation: drawn from real life, each were unusual chart successes – the first told from the point of view of an abused the child, the second a cappella. Vega was the first woman to headline at Glastonbury. Vaclav Havel was a fan and she was a presidential pick for a concert celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – Renee Fleming, Joan Baez and Lou Reed also played, the four joining uneasy forces on “Oh, Freedom”.
Reed’s classic, “Walk On the Wild Side” is among the 24 tracks on An Evening of New York Songs and Stories and the single. It’s Vega’s tenth album and her first in four years. To record it, the woman who came of age among the Fast Folk group of singer-songwriters that comprised the 1980s Greenwich Village scene headed up town, to the Café Carlyle in one of New York’s grandest hotels on the snooty Upper East Side. It’s a wonderful cabaret spot, intimate, elegant, blessed with perfect sound. “Bohemian old-world glamour”, as Vega writes, though at a price.
There are live albums and live albums. Listening to this one you really do feel you’re there. Vega delivers a perfectly paced New York set, engaging with the audience as she introduces the songs, placing each in the specific locale of the city (“59th Street and Central Park South” for “Frank and Ava”, the grungy Lower East Side for “Ludlow Street”). The ambience is beguiling, the musicianship top-notch: Gerry Leonard on guitar, Jeff Allen on bass, and Jamie Edwards on keyboards (there are some fantastic effects), with Vega of course playing acoustic guitar.
In both style and construction, songs such as “Gypsy”, about a long-ago summer as a camp counsellor, not to mention those early hits, remind us of her downtown folkie roots. Others, such a “Freeze Tag” and “Pornographer’s Dream” (which begins and ends with a bossa nova riff), lead us into more complicated sound worlds. “New York is My Destination”, from her one-woman play about novelist Carson McCullers, is Sondheimesque in both its lyrical and melodic construction.
As to Lou Reed, Vega vividly recalls going to see him in her first days at Barnard College, feeling so sophisticated in her newly acquired bright-red lipstick and nail polish. Seeing him “really showed me what rock ‘n’ roll was” and gave her a new perspective on songwriting. Covering an iconic song is never easy, but Vega pulls it off, and listening to it you realise that Reed’s Sprechgesang style of delivery is a key component of her work – “Cracking” is spoken, the verses punctuated by Vega’s vocalising. Hers is not an intrinsically beautiful voice but it is expressive, and ideally suited to the minutely observed lyrics that are the hallmark of her work.
Recorded in spring 2019, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories had been scheduled for release in February, Vega touring on the back of it. The tour has now been rescheduled for 2021 while the album stands as a paean to the city that arguably suffered more than any amid the Covid crisis. The collection, and Vega’s chat, reminds us that New York is a collection of neighbourhoods, each one a community – and those communities will overcome once more. The city will come back, as it did after 9/11. As Vega notes, there are times “you just have to get out of New York, even though you always return”. Grounded in London and listening to Vega (who headlined The Village Trip, my own downtown festival this time two years ago) I find the enforced separation painful.