Suzanne Vega has a delicate, wispy voice that works best when applied to private epiphanies and the sharp-edged observations that result. When the New York singer opened her American tour at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, those moments came on tenderly romantic songs like "Some Journey" and "Gypsy," when her backing quintet deferred to her voice and acoustic guitar or disappeared altogether. Unfortunately, much of the show was given over to Vega's attempts to imitate the dreary art-rock of Kate Bush and Sinead O'Connor, and Vega's voice (and lyrics) often got buried under a drumbeat or guitar fill.
Of course, you can hear the lyrics for Vega's new songs on her albums, but too often she has replaced the sharp observations of her early work with vaporous imagery like the ersatz Freudian symbols found on her drab stage set (and on her new album cover). Some of Vega's tunes were almost devoid of melody, but when she locked onto a catchy melodic phrase (as she did on the new "Book of Dreams" and her one big hit, "Luka") her dry voice proved quite hypnotic. But why can't Vega find a sound engineer who can make her lyrics as discernible in concert as they are on her records?
Opening the show was Brian Kennedy, an Irish singer-songwriter who was spending his first day in America. Kennedy's ethereal falsetto and his sextet's fiddle-dominated folk-rock reminded one of Poi Dog Pondering, only with less wit and more new-age hippie sentimentality.