Cambridge Corn Exchange, 30th June 2005
I'd seen Suzanne Vega perform twice, maybe three times before last night? The uncertainty is because all the previous occasions have been at festivals, so it's harder to distinguish between one muddy field and another. (Sometimes, even, hard to be sure if I was there at all.) Last night's performance came as a refreshingly civilised change from all that (particularly given that I'm still in the Glastonbury recovery period), being a seated concert in a good venue where the sound-tech crew haven't been at the scrumpy all day and I can actually see the stage.
Not that there's much to see: Vega is understated in her movements, barely shifting from her spot except to pick up and put down her guitar, and occasionally confer with the bassist (Mike Visceglia) who provides her only other accompaniment. When she does move, though, it's with poise and assurance -- the same assurance that infuses all her songs.
The striking thing about her music is how crystal clear every note and every word is. She plays from a back catalogue that goes back to her eponymous debut album from 1985 (though 1990's Days of Open Hand seems to have been quietly dropped from her playlist altogether), but all the songs retain their crispness and newness, still glittering with beautifully-observed images and rippling with the ringing guitar sound which is her trademark. Admirably, she mostly manages to retain this freshness without substantially altering anything -- "Cracking" replicates the album version note for note, but it's alive, there's an extra dimension, more play of shadows and light. When she does make alterations to the style, they sound less like cover versions and more like privileged close-up views of the original songs -- as with "Blood Makes Noise", which is stripped to its bare essentials, Vega's intense voice set against the dark and punchy pulse of Visceglia's bass.
The new songs -- "Unbound", "Anniversary, "Rosemary" -- are promising, though noticeably not as polished as the rest of her material. "Unbound" is a simple, slight lyric which sounds (appropriately for its metaphor of rootbound plants) as though it needs growing into. "Anniversary" is poetic and moving, though it didn't really gain anything except expectations from the explanation of its origins in the anniversary of 9/11. "Rosemary", a characteristically bittersweet vignette, was by far the most finished of the three. Taken as a whole, though, if these are a sign of the direction the new material is taking then it's a direction I'll gladly be following.
Her second encore ends with a version of Rodgers & Hart's "Have you met Miss Jones?", with the lyrics changed (as by Ella Fitzgerald) to "Have you met Sir Jones?" -- it seems an odd choice, but she manages to give the song a smoky jazz feel (helped out by a virtuoso bass solo as Visceglia is allowed free rein at last) without turning it into a novelty number. (The real novelty number is, sadly, "Tom's Diner", which becomes an audience participation item. Self-awareness saves it, though; "That wasn't a bad Tom's Diner," Vega says. "You're better than Newcastle.")
Vega bids the audience goodbye without fanfare or fuss, and there's a slight feeling of something left unfinished as the audience applauds politely. But then, what are her songs but stories left half-told? The clarity of those songs is not just about the words and the notes, it's about the spaces between them; there's a richness of detail and an intensity of emotion, and yet there's always a secret hidden core which shapes the songs and yet remains silent -- "a silence more eloquent than any words could ever be". And it flies by, and is gone.