(Posted today on the TONY Blog)
What is it that makes Suzanne Vega so sexy? It’s not in what she tells us, but what she refuses to reveal. The stories she’s told over the past 20-plus years have been crammed with detail. But in the best of them, she somehow suggests a worldliness that she seldom comes right out and talks about, one that’s hard to square with her prim, aloof demeanor. It’s that negative space—that unknowable quantity between appearance and allusion—that makes Vega so hypnotic and, yes, ineffably alluring.
We caught Vega last night at Joe’s Pub, where she offered a preview of Beauty & Crime, her first new studio album in close to six years, due out on Blue Note in July. Her last one, Songs in Red and Gray, came out two weeks after Sept. 11, she mentioned between songs mid-set. Touring to support that album, she said, everyone she encountered on the road wanted to know about how things were in New York City.
In a sense, Beauty & Crime is Vega’s long-awaited response. The songs on the album deal with New York City in one way or another. Later in the set, Vega mentioned that many others had been started over the last six years, but she hadn’t been able to resolve all of them. (One was provisionally titled “72 Virgins.”) Emblematic of the subject is “New York Is a Woman,” the song that opened Vega’s set last night, which describes the love-at-first-sight sensation this city sparks:
New York is a woman
She’ll make you cry
And to her, you’re just another guy
Clad in a slate-gray kimono-cut top, black slacks and hott shoes, and fronting a sharp five-piece band, Vega ran through a clutch of other numbers from Beauty & Crime: the breezy “Ludlow Street” (with her young daughter Ruby Froom on backing vocals); “Pornographer’s Dream,” an airy samba; “Frank & Ava,” a sunny song about lovers who can’t get along outside of bed. “Angel’s Doorway” told the story of a neighbor, a firefighter who worked at Ground Zero, whose wife protested the smell that saturated his clothes. She spun this into a metaphor for what we’re willing to allow into our homes and lives. The melancholy message of “Anniversary” was lofted by swelling four-part vocal harmonies, while “Zephyr & I,” about a meeting with the legendary NYC graffiti artist, was pumped up by a backbeat that could have been lifted from a Young Rascals single.
Vega will be playing a bigger showcase later this year, after the record comes out. (Keep an eye on listings for the Town Hall in November.) But this intimate showcase was something special; true fans had come from distant lands, like Portugal and New Jersey. Vega didn’t disappoint them, sprinkling older hits throughout the set. “Caramel” was a sad, sexy bossa nova; “Left and Center” and “Blood Makes Noise” were stripped-down duets with bassist Mike Veseglia.
After “In Liverpool” and, yes, “Luka,” Vega offered a surprise. “Tom’s Diner” began with the usual a cappella verse, but then her band kicked into an impressive recreation of the DNA dance remix that made the song a phenomenon. It’s also a great metaphor for Vega’s appeal: The stiff, unyielding dance beat doesn’t pay any attention to her chord changes, but neither does she feel any need to compromise her melody to fit anyone else’s demands. As she danced alone at center stage, you first thought she was the shy nerd at the party, who swayed only when she thought no one was looking. And then you realized that you had it all wrong: She’s the one in charge, and she doesn’t care what you think. And her not caring just makes you want her that much more.
For the encore, Vega headed all the way back to her debut album for “Marlene on the Wall.” Immediately, we were undergrads in college all over again, pondering where this elusive, wordy singer had come from, and why she gave us chills. The song had a hypnotic effect back then. It still does: We’ve got a fresh iTunes receipt to prove it.