By Jay Darcy
I’ve made it my life’s mission to see as many divas possible and my most recent adventure to see folk rock artist Suzanne Vega did not disappoint! Folk music is not the most commercial; Vega is one of very few folk artists to have achieved mainstream success – even though there is very little that’s mainstream about her so it’s safe to say she’s cemented herself as a legend!
Vega’s opening act was British folk singer Sam Lee whose performance in Glasgow the night prior had been complimented by Scottish folk icon Barbara Dickson OBE, whom I had the pleasure of reviewing last year. A folk singer being praised by Dickson is a big deal – it’s testament to Lee’s talent, even though his music was not at all my cup of tea.
However, I appreciated his humour- which came naturally to him. Before beginning his set, he told us that he had lost his voice (preparing us for the worst) yet he sounded great. His voice sounded extra raspy, which works wonderfully for folk! He also told us that Manchester has a great history of folk music but, let’s be honest, Manchester has a history of everything.
After one of his songs, he admitted that there were notes in the song that should not have been there and there were not notes that should have been there! His self-deprecating humour added much-needed joy to his set because his music is quite sombre.
“Can we all just have a collective cough, get the sickness out?” he asked.
His opening set included a song he had not yet sang on the tour. “We’ve not been singing it because… we haven’t,” he said, to laughter from the audience. He proceeded to tell us that the song is about death (like I said, thank goodness he has a cheerful personality).
He then told us that he would be selling CDs in the main foyer – which prove that he can actually sing!
Whilst Lee’s music is not at all my cup of tea, I can appreciate his tremendous talent, and it was a great opening for Vega – folk music but less accessible than Vega’s sound. It was an introduction to traditional British folk for many of us, and it’s nice to try new things – for how do you know you don’t like something if you’ve never tried it?
Vega’s set was similarly lowkey. Like Lee, she had one musician beside her. Her musician was pretty punk: an older man with baby pink hair – honestly, slay!
“I love you, Suzanne,” shouted a fan. Vega blew him a kiss. “I love you more, Suzanne,” shouted another. He, too, received a kiss. Vega is far too polite to respond, “Do you want to come up here and do the rest of the show?”.
Vega was finally allowed to begin her set, which she fittingly opened with her debut single, ‘Marlene on the Wall’. Whilst the song originally placed low in the UK charts (as did her second single, whilst her third did not chart at all), its re-release became her highest-charting UK solo hit.
Vega’s second song was her second single, ‘Small Blue Thing’.
Billed as ‘An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories’, Vega inserted little stories in between most songs during the gig, usually with some relation to the previous or next song. After her second song, she told us that she has learned over time that it is best to do the older material straight away, for if you do the freaky, experimental stuff early on, it will freak audiences out.
She had a dig at artists who insist on doing their whole album early on. I turned my head to my friend, Rebecca, whom I had just been ranting to about Panic! At The Disco, who are performing their entire new album on their farewell tour.
Vega told us that the next song, ‘Gypsy’, was about a man she met whilst working at a camp in the US. He had asked her if she liked Leonard Cohen; she told him she loved him. She said it was so rare to find somebody in her age group who even knew Cohen, let alone loved him.
Vega dated this guy for six weeks. She promised that she is not obsessed with him but this song reminds people of their first love. That would have been believable if not for the next story…
After ‘Gypsy’, Vega told us that she found herself in the hometown of that boy 15 years later and wondered what he was up to and what could have been – so she wrote the following song: ‘In Liverpool’. The story continued… Around her 40th birthday, she got a bouquet backstage in London from this man! The note contained his email address. “We had internet back then,” Vega joked.
Vega and her former flame communicated via email and eventually got together for lunch. He had heard ‘In Liverpool’ on the BBC: “I recognised myself. Thank you for that,” he told her. The man bought the CD which the song was included on, and played it repeatedly- to the irritation of his girlfriend. His girlfriend then pulled out Vega’s fifth album, and the couple listened to it; the man heard ‘Caramel’ and immediately knew it was about him. “You dated Suzanne Vega?” asked his flabbergasted girlfriend.
Vega told us that she did not like to sing ‘Gypsy’ in front of her mother because she did not want her to know she had been dating but when she told her that she had reunited with the man from camp, she asked her, “Oh, does he still have a long and slender body?”
The story ended with Vega telling us that she has also had a boyfriend from Manchester but that romance was more of a “just divorced my husband and you look really nice”.
Vega later sang ‘When Heres Go Down’, an homage to Leonard Cohen – but she told us that she was sticking a Cohen song (‘Lipstick Vogue’) in the middle in case we did not realise that it was an homage to him!
The evening then hit a sombre note. Vega song ‘Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)’, which she had previously sang at an event for Ukraine (the song concerns David and Goliath, a fitting subject matter, but Vega admitted that one person had thought the giant had won that battle). She then sang a new song which she had written for Ukraine: ‘Last Train from Mariupol’. This was particularly touching for Rebecca, who is part Ukrainian.
After nine lesser-known songs, Vega finally blessed us with a hit: ‘Left of Center’, a single, featuring Joe Jackson, from the soundtrack to the film Pretty in Pink.
Vega then referenced the fact that she never wears white, to laughter from the audience, for she was literally wearing all black. She said people always ask her why this is – “Even in New York, where everyone wears black” – so she wrote a song (‘I Never Wear White’), “And I’ll sing it forever”.
The evening then hit a sombre note. Vega song ‘Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)’, which she had previously sang at an event for Ukraine (the song concerns David and Goliath, fitting subject matter, but Vega admitted that one person thought the giant had won the battle). She then sang a new song which she had written for Ukraine: ‘Last Train from Mariupol’. This was particularly touching for Rebecca, who is part Ukrainian.
The penultimate song of the main set was ‘Luka’, her highest-charting song in North America. I have listened to that song countless times – it’s one of only two Vega songs I knew until fairly recently – but it was only when hearing the song sung live that I realised that its subject matter is child abuse.
Vega ended the main set with ‘Tom’s Diner’. The original a cappella recording of the song was used as a test during the creation of the MP3 format, and the role of her song in the development of the MP3 compression prompted Vega to be given the title of “The Mother of the MP3”. However, the song was not a hit. But, a few years later, electronic duo DNA remixed the song and it became Vega’s highest-charting song in both the UK and Australia.
Back in 2016, Vega admitted to being wary of DNA’s remix, because ‘Luka’ (despite its dark subject matter) lent itself to all sorts of parodies and covers- most of which she hated. However, she loved DNA’s remix and, whilst she thought it would just be played in a few dance clubs, it surpassed everyone’s expectations. “I even got a plaque for it being one of the most played R&B songs – funny for a folk singer.”
Vega’s live rendition seemed to be a mix of the two versions.
Sadly, I had to skip the encore. Luckily, she’d sang all her hits in the main set, but I do have some regret over missing her cover of Blondie‘s ‘Dreaming’.
Whilst I don’t listen to much folk music, I enjoyed this elegant, intimate evening- especially due to the inclusion of funny stories. Whilst Vega’s music is more commercial and accessible than Lee’s, it can also be a little depressing, so the hilarious, personal stories were a nice contrast; it was like a beautifully dreary evening (you know, like a Brontë novel?) with sunlight creeping through the grey clouds.
Suzanne Vega tours the world until August 6 – with more dates coming soon.
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