Concert Review: Suzanne Vega @ Universal Preservation Hall, 04/14/2023
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Universal Preservation Hall hosted Suzanne Vega, the folk-inspired singer-songwriter who first sprang to the public’s attention in the late 1980s with her “Solitude Standing” album on Saturday night. Vega’s ability to tell stories with language and melody transcended time, moving the audience through her new and old songs alike, leaving the audience on its feet demanding more, even after her final encore.
Vega was a favorite of mine when I was younger, and I distinctly remember hearing her famous “Tom’s Diner” and experiencing how closely spoken word is related to music. It was a newer idea for me then, as I was thinking more traditionally about poetry and refuting lyrics as poetry. Vega came along in the late 1980s and shattered that concept for me.
When she came on stage Friday night, she looked more like a poet than a folk artist in many ways. Dressed in black with a red tank under her clothing, she quietly entered the stage, picked up a black top hat, and placed it carefully on her straight blonde hair before quietly playing “Marlene on the Wall.” I noticed a few balance issues with the sound, but it was quickly managed by the sound engineer, who clearly also was struggling to hear her vocals above the guitar.
By her second song, “Small Blue Thing,” Vega was all business and in good form. After a brief bow, she moved gracefully into her song “Caramel,” and it was clear she could shift across genres, bending the sound to express her theme of longing regardless of the rhythm.
After this, Vega appeared more relaxed, talking to the crowd about her “dating” while working as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks as an older teen and following that story through to more mature friendships later in life. From “Gypsy” to “In Liverpool,” she knit her songs together with her stories, charming the audience with her NYC dry wit and self-awareness.
“I noticed the audience is more relaxed when I play some older songs up front,” she teased, but it was very true: this audience had come to hear Vega’s famed songs from younger years. But looking around the audience, there was clearly appreciation for both new and old songs. And the older songs were crisp, crackling with the newness of interpretation enough to stretch listeners.
Vega is still politically relevant, sharing how “Rock in This Pocket” was performed recently at a benefit for Ukraine. Understated and clever, Vega performed her newer song “Last Train from Mariupol” next, positioning herself clearly on the political spectrum as siding heavily with the underdog in the fight.
From there, the night picked up speed with “Solitude Standing” and “Left of Center.” Irish Guitarist Gerry Leonard joined her for the evening, and he evoked some eerie and thought-provoking sounds from the instrument that echoed Vega’s lyrical meaning. Leonard is best known for his guitar work with David Bowie. He was a delightful addition to the experience that was unanticipated and delicious. Leonard’s uplifting chordal responses in “My Name is Luka” balanced the grief of the song about child abuse and provided some hopeful energy in what many would say is heartbreaking.
The best song of the night was clearly “Tom’s Diner,” which Vega placed at the very end of the night. As Vega walked around the stage singing and waving to those on the balcony, there was a fun energy injected into the end of the set. Leonard’s addition of the sounds of cathedral bells, somehow pulled from his electric guitar, were a revelation. No matter how often I had heard “Tom’s Diner” before, it was fresh and new.
Vega returned to the stage for a three-song encore, including a cover of Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and her own “Tombstone.” The crowd barely allowed Vega to leave, standing and cheering her return to the stage.
This was the first stop for Suzanne Vega on her Northeast Tour this spring. Vega is still relevant, challenging listeners to think while also using music to express longing, lost love, and wonder. Vega live is a new experience, fresh as spring flowers even while maintaining her original sense of self.