Suzanne Vega at the Birchmere, Celebrating the 'Beauty & Crime' of N.Y.
Suzanne Vega opened her seductive Tuesday night set at the Birchmere with an a cappella version of "Tom's Diner," rivaled only by "Luka" as her best-known song. Was she just getting it over with, lest she be interrupted by calls for the tune all night?
Her scheme was quickly revealed: The four members of her band entered one by one as she sang, each timing his entrance to a new verse. A cute trick, but unnecessary -- the 90 minutes that followed proved Vega and company more than capable of adapting the mature cool of her albums to the stage without gimmickry. When Vega later closed the main set with a full-band, synth-washed reprise of "Tom's Diner," the reference to her 1987 breakthrough album "Solitude Standing," which begins and ends with the song, was clear.
But Vega had come to push "Beauty & Crime," her first album of all-new material since 2001. Her generous introductions to each of the set's seven new songs went a long way to helping the performances overcome the detached quality that marred much of her '90s output. "Frank & Ava" brought a welcome gallop after the show's subdued beginning, its fractious tempo befitting the rocky love affair of its subjects. Other new tunes offered portraits of Vega's home town: "New York Is a Woman" ("not always a lady," Vega added), as well as "Ludlow St." and "Angel's Doorway," about a policeman's nightly return to his wife after searching the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The band relished its few opportunities to rock out: Mike Visceglia's fuzzed-up bass gave "Blood Makes Noise" a silky groove, while Ben Butler's electric guitar fills tricked out "Marlene on the Wall" and "Luka" with more punch than their recorded versions and without overpowering Vega's breathy vocals. But best of all was when the band left Vega and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Alison Cornell to give us a hushed take of "Gypsy" that retained, 20 years later, all the innocence and yearning of the original.
-- Chris Klimek