Saturday, 30 August, 2014

Published April 04, 2014
Weaving lyrical magic
Folk-rock musician Suzanne Vega hasn't lost her touch or the ability to remain rooted in her individuality while staying in tune with the times, says GEOFFREY EU
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Vega: Her deeply personal songs and disarmingly girlish, breathy voice were displayed to full effect when she played to an appreciative audience at the Esplanade Recital Studio earlier this week. - PHOTO: JOANNA KWA

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HER name is Suzanne Vega and her poetic songs - of journeys taken, words unspoken and dreams long broken - have lingered in our collective consciousness since she burst onto the contemporary folk-rock music scene some three decades ago.

Those deeply personal songs, intense yet accessible, and that disarmingly girlish, breathy voice - evocative of youth, discovery and a strong sense of self - were displayed to full effect when Vega played to an appreciative audience at the Esplanade Recital Studio earlier this week, during the opening gig of an Asian tour.

Her pared-down storytelling-in-song style was wholly appropriate to the venue, an intimate space with virtually no props, just superior acoustics where Vega - assisted in no small way by guitarist Gerry Leonard - could connect with the crowd.

Vega, who started her career by performing in small bars and clubs in Greenwich Village in New York, is most effective in this kind of environment, where she can command attention while reaching out and touching hearts and minds. Even on stage, her songs require people to listen rather than to merely watch.

Dressed like a modern-day troubadour, complete with top hat and scarf draped over a casual all-black outfit and wearing shiny gold loafers that glittered under the spotlights, Vega launched into her 90-minute, 15-song and three-encores set with Marlene on the Wall, a standout from her eponymous 1985 album.

Her innate ability to blend frivolity with longing was evident in Caramel, from her 1996 album Nine Objects of Desire:

It won't do to dream of caramel,

to think of cinnamon and long for you.

It won't do to stir a deep desire,

to fan a hidden fire that can never burn true.

Vega included several songs from her recently-released eighth album Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, a title that speaks of the inherent literacy of her lyrics and her idea of fun.

At the end of each song she simply said a brief "Thanks" before moving on to the next one. Once in awhile she would expound a little, as she did before Gypsy, a song she wrote about a summer romance the year she turned 18, bonding with a fellow Leonard Cohen devotee. "I love Leonard Cohen, but only in certain moods," said Vega.

The same might be said of Vega, although many in the Esplanade audience - comprising mainly expats of a certain vintage and a sprinkling of local fans - would probably disagree. Judging from the enthusiastic reception given her throughout the evening, Vega's effortless renditions likely unleashed a flood of distant memories of days gone by.

Vega's most famous song - and one that still receives regular airplay on radio stations throughout the civilised world - is Luka, and it received a near-reverential listening near the end of the set, but it was possibly pipped in popularity that evening by a couple of more "fun" songs, indicating perhaps the upbeat mood in the room.

Left of Center, a song that gained traction as part of the soundtrack from the teen comedy Pretty in Pink (1986), sent a ripple of good vibrations through the room, and the mood was sealed moments later when Vega switched into rebel rocker mode for I Never Wear White, from her new album.

It was proof positive that the lady in black hasn't lost her touch or the ability to remain rooted in her individuality while staying in tune with the times. The singer is comfortable in her own skin, and the audience was equally content to listen to the truth in her stories - and reminisce.

I never wear white

White is for virgins

Children in summer

Brides in the park.

My colour is black black black

Black is for secrets

Outlaws and dancers

For the poet of the dark.