Hammersmith Odeon. Wembley Arena. Wasn’t it nice when these venues could just be called what they’re called without being obligated to have the name of a multinational conglomerate inelegantly crowbarred into their title? I mention these places not out of nostalgic respect to times past, but because it was upon their stages that I first saw Suzanne Vega perform in the late 1980s. Indeed it’s testament to the explosive impact her first two albums made on the UK music scene that she was booked to play in such iconic venues, with such large capacities.
In 2015, Vega has returned to the UK to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of her eponymously titled, platinum-selling debut album and to promote her latest studio recording, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles, released in 2014. She has certainly played some iconic venues on this tour to date – including shows at the Isle of Wight Festival and London’s stunning Union Chapel. Tonight’s performance was in Basingstoke, a town which has an iconic status all of its own – although the concrete high rise skyline does struggle to compete with the Arc Deco splendour of Vega’s native New York City. There is no denying however that Basingstoke does have an excellent community theatre in The Anvil; a place which, despite being a fair size, did manage to serve up an intimate atmosphere all of its own.
First upon its stage was Farnborough (Kent) singer songwriter Ben Montague, sharing the UK tour with Vega and promoting his Back Into Paradise album, released on June 15th. The Anvil was impressively full for Montague’s set and Vega’s crowd was generous in their applause, clearly enjoying the aperitif.
Main course appeared shortly thereafter, there being little in the way of backline for the road crew to move around. Vega was joined, as she has been for a number of years, by collaborator, producer, guitarist and all round clever guy Gerry Leonard. Leonard, surrounded by a guitar rig so complicated that Professor Brian Cox might have struggled to get his head around it is responsible for shaping much of Vega’s live sound; dropping multiple percussive loops whilst triggering other pre-recorded elements. Leonard’s swirling, organic pads are complimented by Suzanne’s own acoustic guitar and fragile vocal – her voice now sounds exactly as it did back in the Odeon in 1987. The whole is an amalgam of ethereal soundscapes, often haunting, often sad, always beautiful.
The duo opened with Fat Man And Dancing Girl from Vega’s 1992 album 99.9°F, a record that showed a marked detour away from the folk-pop that established her success and into a more industrial and experimental sound. But very soon, we were in much more familiar territory with Marlene On The Wall, one of three or four of Vega’s songs that pretty much anybody over the age of 30 must surely be able to hum in the shower. In a nod to Dietrich, Vega donned a top hat for this one, though fell short of climbing into the full tailcoat.
The show soon fell into a clear pattern of cuts from the bookends of Vega’s career to date with music from Suzanne Vega and Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles getting a heavy workout. Between the songs there were often lengthy narratives explaining their origins. One such story about the song Gypsy (a tale of a summer romance, a boy from Liverpool and of Vega’s first love) is so well known that Suzanne invited the audience to tell it to her. Of course, some songs need no introduction to an audience that go way back. Small Blue Thing and The Queen And The Soldier are just played and met with warm applause.
The set closed with two more songs lodged in the long-term memory of the over-30s, Luka and Tom’s Diner, both from 1987s Solitude Standing, Vega’s most successful record to date. The former must surely be the jolliest sounding song about child abuse that has ever been written and the latter went on to even bigger fame and bought a whole new audience when sampled and remixed by DNA in 1991. Dietrich’s top hat made a reappearance for this one.
After a brief lull (you reach a point where nobody, including the artist, can really be bothered to wait too long for an encore), Vega and Leonard re-joined the audience and they played an extended version of Blood Makes Noise, In Liverpool and Rosemary to close out the show. Blood Makes Noise, another harder-edged tune from 99.9°F that gave Gerry Leonard freewill to let rip with his guitar atmospherics was my highlight of the night.
Suzanne Vega has now completed the UK leg of her current tour and is headed into mainland Europe through July. Her album Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles is classic Vega and certainly worthy of the attention of anybody aware of her earlier work.
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Photography & Review by Simon Reed. Suzanne Vega @ Basingstoke Anvil Theatre on 21 June 2015. Simon has his own great website here: www.musicalpictures.co.uk