Concert Review: Vienna Teng @ Caffe Lena, 09/29/2023
Singer-songwriter, pianist, composer, and climate activist Vienna Teng began her three night residency at Caffe Lena this past Friday. The listening room, clad in its old exposed brick and warm-colored stage lights, served as the perfect vessel for Teng’s music. It was sold out, and there was hardly a space to breathe as audience members sat at their tables. But in this area of audience density, her songs found a way. Her sweet and imperfectly perfect voice overtop powerful piano ballads seeped into every space like grains of sand sifting through stones in a jar until it spilled out into the hallway.
Her setlist was long (a full 23.5 songs) and partially ad hoc. She didn’t have a solid setlist. “We’ll build it together,” she said. After every few pre-determined songs, she would turn to the audience and say, “shout out what you want to hear.” And we would oblige, suggestions tossed from every corner of the room. Her eyes would twinkle and a grin would plaster wide across her face as she would say, “don’t normally hear someone ask for that song live.” This kind of unscripted uncertainty for a live show was new and exciting.
We didn’t hear much from the climate-activist side of Teng, save for the times she used it as a framing device for periods of her life; they were context for the songs we were about to hear. I imagine she was saving all of her thoughts and expertise for the climate workshops she would be conducting the rest of the weekend.
Each song received a little anecdote, offering up the inspiration, the process, or insight to the perspective from which each song was birthed. There were even places where she clued us into experimentation and uncertainty. She brought out an unfamiliar instrument called “the pipe,” a sort of voice modulator and sound effect synthesizer, and used it to reimagine the single “The Tower” from her first album Waking Hour.
Some of the last songs of the setlist, all titled “We’ve Got You,” were what she described as almost being perspectives of the same thing. One song was one perspective, the second the other, and the third was a mashup of the two. This choice to sing three songs in sequence in this way was incredibly unique. That said, I can understand the approach, but I think in the mashup the story gets a little lost.
While the extensive setlist had little or no weaknesses, there were certainly strengths and songs that I felt excelled beyond the rest. She sang a cover of “The Lost Words Blessing,” and while I don’t know the original, her delicate voice richly beautifully served the even more delicate poetry of this song.
There was also this lyric in a different song called “The Riversitter” that really stopped me in my tracks. It was a response to a book called The Museum of Rain by Dave Eggers and Angel Chang. Teng’s music is always naturally rich and poetic, unlike I who tends to wax poetic, but this song in particular really stood out. It is the lyric that directly incorporates the book title. It goes, “a museum of rain that feeds the river flow.” I’ve read the lyrics of the song a couple times now, and I wish I could tell you with any real certainty what it means. But to me, it speaks of the cyclical nature of life, of Earth. All is one and one is all. How everything we consume, everything we are, came from the earth and will return to it. All of the water on earth is the same water that has ever existed. The history of the water, the museum, is what feeds the rivers now.
A standout song to me was “City Hall,” a song she coyly coined a ripoff of a Dolly Parton song. She was right, I could totally hear Dolly singing (and proudly singing!) this song is written from the perspective of a same-sex couple overjoyed to finally find their marriage legalized in California.
One of my favorite songs of the night was “Lullaby for a Stormy Night,” a song I’ve known for quite a long time, having heard it in some “AMV” (this might be a very niche remark, I don’t know) on YouTube in my freshman year of high school. I was eager to hopefully hear this song, and when she finally sang it, it was worth the wait. Twenty years of performing has allowed her to really perfect this song. It was so much stronger now, live, than it was recorded in the studio all those years ago.
Vienna Teng’s music is heartfelt and honest, beautiful, delicate, and made my ears and heart happy. If you attended any of the climate workshops…thank you. What you’re doing is important.
Setlist: (*Indicates favorites of the night)
- The Atheist Christmas Carol
- Stray Italian Greyhound (a song written by an unreliable narrator)
- Whatever You Want
- Hymn of Axiom (a song written from the POV of a marketing database)
- Land Sailor (a ‘non-cringey song about sustainability’…a marriage to global supply systems and air conditioners)
- Nothing Without You
- The Tower
- The Lost Words Blessing*
- Level Up
- City Hall*
- Goodnight New York*
- Blue Caravan*
- The Riversitter*
- We’ve Got You #1
- We’ve Got You #2
- We’ve Got You (Mashup)
- Lullaby for a Stormy Night*
- Green Island Serenade* (Taiwanese Lullaby)
- Grandmother Song