BWW Review: Suzanne Vega Burns Bright Singing McCullers Songs at Cafe Carlyle
Suzanne Vega is not a firecracker; she's a sparkler.
In the first night of her run at Café Carlyle on March 15---since the previous day's show was nixed due to a rude winter storm named Stella---Vega was dazzling, but in the smallest, most personal way possible. Getting up onstage, she spoke with the calm, reassuring but controlled tone of a therapist or a meditation coach. While that may not sound like a great recipe for a stage persona, Vega's stripped-down performance bordered on hypnotic.
Opening with "Fat Man and Dancing Girl" (Vega/Mitchell Froom) with her acoustic guitar, she sang the lyrics in such a subtle, intentional way that it like a spoken-word secret the audience had simply happened upon. Stylistically sparse but endlessly magnetic, it was like transcending time and space.
Throughout the night, Vega seemed slightly self-conscious, though she had no need to be. Getting meta in the introduction of one of her biggest hits, Vega cleverly broke down the phenomenon of bringing in new material too early and having the crowd say, "No, no thank you."
"Some of you are sitting there wondering, 'When are you going to sing Queen and the Soldier?'" before announcing the time had come for the bittersweet number.
Gerry Leonard played acoustic and electric guitars, while Jason Hart played piano, string synth and synth bass, both assisting with background vocals.
A gifted storyteller, Vega really entered the zone a few songs in with "Gypsy," a perfect blending of a story and a song that clearly both mean a great deal to her. She opened up about the boy she met at sleepaway camp in the Adirondacks in her youth. Vega recalled the way people used to couch their pop culture opinions so they didn't seem strange, saying they liked listening to Leonard Cohen's music "only in certain moods" because you "didn't want friends to think you were depressed or on medication." Except for this boy, who was different because he likEd Cohen's music all the time.
And when she revealed "Marlene on the Wall" was written about advice she thought Marlene Dietrich would give her about not "giving away the goods" too early," Vega joked about reading a biography written by Dietrich's daughter and learning that the star "gave away the goods whenever and whenever she wanted."
She didn't say this in a judgmental way. She appeared fascinated by the stories women have to share, which became clear when she transitioned into several tracks from her most recent album, LOVER, BELOVED: SONGS FROM AN EVENING WITH Carson McCullers.
These songs, co-written by Duncan Sheik, are part of a biographical musical of the Southern-born writer. Originally going under the name Carson McCullers TALKS ABOUT LOVE, a reworked version of the show---now titled LOVER, BELOVED: AN EVENING WITH Carson McCullers---is set to premiere in Houston next year on its way to New York. Launching into the first number, "New York Is My Destination," she took on the role of McCullers, trading serenity for a little bit of danger.
At first, it didn't feel completely natural for her, standing there with a prop cigarette (not hers, but Carson McCullers', Vega said), but I was fully converted by the time she got around to "Harper Lee." Her delight was palpable in the jaunty number, essentially a literary diss track calling out McCullers' contemporaries like Woolf, Hemingway and, of course, a certain late Alabamian. (Seriously, if there's a sicker scholarly burn than, "Yes, for Harper Lee, we have seen and we've heard / And I'd like to kill more than just that mockingbird," I certainly haven't heard it.)
She wowed with hits like "Luka" and "In Liverpool" (both her own), a sequel to "Gypsy" in which she reunites with her ex-flame a dozen years later. But Vega astounded the crowd with a rendition of her original take on "Tom's Diner." Even then, she seemed a little taken aback by the crowd's rabid response to the number. When it was over, Vega thanked the audience for bopping along to the rhythm.
"I'm so pleased you clapped [along]," she said, admitting she'd been a tad concerned about a too-cool Upper East Side crowd. "I'm proud of you."
Those good manners extended to her generous three-song encore. She returned, first with two more songs from LOVER, BELOVED, including the title track before her performance culminated in a rendition of "Rosemary" that felt like a lullaby, ushering the audience back into the world.
So, like I said: Suzanne Vega's a sparkler. And after more than three decades of performing, that sparkler still burns quite brightly.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.