An intimate evening with Suzanne Vega at Mass MoCA
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., November 10, 2002) – At the outset of her concert at Mass MoCA on Saturday night, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega promised “an intimate evening,” and in many ways she delivered just that. Accompanied only by herself on acoustic guitar and by Michael Visceglia on electric bass guitar, Vega took a very informal, chatty approach to her performance and played minimalist, stripped-down arrangements of her poetic, confessional songs.

This approach showcased both her strengths and her weaknesses. As a songwriter, Vega is almost without par. When the songs of this era are culled for standards, there will undoubtedly be several Vega tunes in the repertoire. Her poetry is sharp, and the rhythm and meter of her lines perfectly coordinate with her melodies.

Vega’s performance, however, does not always live up to the strengths of her songs. Take “Caramel,” for instance. As a bossa nova tune, and one with a sultry, hypnotic melody, it’s one of the most likely to enter a standard repertoire. But it’s not strummy, folky stuff, and it cried out for a jazzier arrangement – some Jobim-like guitar, some brushes on a snare, maybe a little piano. While Vega’s solo acoustic guitar rendition had its organic pleasures, it really didn’t do the song justice.

Part of the problem was Vega’s guitar-playing. As a folk guitarist, Vega is fine. But a lot of her music demands more than basic folk fingerpicking and strumming – some of it is jazzy, some of it rocks, and in neither case does Vega command enough authority with her instrument to pull it off. Visceglia’s accompaniment on bass went somewhat towards addressing this, but not enough to fully complement the demands of Vega’s more sophisticated tunes.

Not that there weren’t plenty of highlights that made for a fully satisfying evening for Vega fans. She read a terrific story from her collected works about growing up in Spanish Harlem, before launching into “Neighborhood Girls,” a bit of New York street-rock that channels her inner Lou Reed. Visceglia churned up an ominous shipwreck under the haunting melody of “Widow’s Walk,” and cued an enthusiastic crowd that lent hand percussion to “Solitaire.”

“I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May” was Vega’s answer song, thirty-odd-years later, to the Rod Stewart lament about an intergenerational romance. And freed of her guitar, singing accompanied only by Visceglia’s very Elvis Costello-ish bass riff, Vega swung through “Left of Center,” her ode to iconoclasm.

But ultimately, the technical shortfalls – which included some poor sound engineering and some aesthetically offensive manipulation of Vega’s vocals – detracted from what could have been a near-perfect evening with one of the best songwriters of our generation.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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