- Photo by Kevin Cooper (more at facebook.com/EGNottingham)
- SUZANNE Vega has always fused the trad and the hi-tech. Her talent was honed on acoustic guitar in New York City’s folk clubs, her shruggingly intelligent songs an odd mixture of acidic blazes of insight into contemporary relationships and awkward sixth-form melodrama about chess and knights in armour.
But even at her most stripped-down, she’s always looked forward. Her completely a capella 1987 sing Tom’s Diner was bolted to a dance track by UK producers DNA and the result was both her biggest hit and the gateway to the beats and electronica on subsequent albums. The track was also used as a test when audio boffins were creating the first MP3, placing Vega – albeit indirectly – at the creation of the technology that, for good or ill, defines pop’s current digital era.
She’s been away for a few years but she’s back with a sharp new album and a show once again as hi-tech as it is traditional.
At the Royal Concert Hall, she’s backed by just one musician – guitarist Gerry Leonard, also known as ambient musician Spooky Ghost and as David Bowie’s musical director (he plays on Heathen, Reality and last year’s blockbusting The Next Day). Leonard produced and co-wrote Vega’s new songs and his beautifully judged guitar parts, coupled with his total command of digital delay and electronic effects, boggled the mind – to the extent that, as Vega admitted, some think the tour uses pre-recorded backing tracks.
But no, this was all real time. And it was the perfect match for the stunning songs from the new – somewhat unfortunately titled – record, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles (US bookstore chain Barnes & Noble is playing the album in its shops – except for one track, which contains the words “virgin” and “bastard”, as in illegitimate child; “It made me wish I’d called the album Virgins And Bastards,” she joked, as if that wasn’t 100 times better).
Anyway, the dynamic duo started as they meant to go on, leaping straight in with Vega’s brilliant first hit, Marlene On The Wall, her acoustic playing powering the song to a surging crescendo as Leonard piled on chordal drama as well as a lovely, delicate solo.
The new material was top notch, easily the match of anything she’s done. The stark Song Of The Stoic – about a man looking back at his life as he nears its end, she explained – was haunting and touching. Jacob And The Angel and Fool’s Complaint would have been highlights of any record made at the height of her fame. But best of all were the vertiginous, complex and funny Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain and I Never Wear White, the confrontational number that upset Barnes & Noble but is also her most convincing, full-blooded rock song.
At the end, Leonard layered his guitar to produce drones, percussive beats, basslines and fabulous electronic ornamentation on a dramatically reconfigured Tom’s Diner that gave the number a new life for the 21st century. It was the real deal. She’s been away too long.
Photo by Kevin Cooper (more at facebook.com/EGNottingham)