Suzanne Vega at the Royal Festival Hall
One of the finest singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York folk scene, Suzanne Vega is no stranger to the Southbank Centre, having previously performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and also tonight’s venue. The famed musician plays tonight to a packed Festival Hall with her long-time touring partner Gerry Leonard, who has performed with the likes of David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper, amongst others.
A discernible gasp resounds as the stage lights envelope both artists, Vega with her signature black top hat, producing a satisfying pop while whooping with the crowd. Leading with the classic Marlene on the Wall, it is clear to see why the singer tours with Leonard, whose guitar style perfectly complements hers, the two together creating ambient melodies. The next song, a hit with fans, is Small Blue Thing, also taken from the self-titled debut album (a record that reached platinum status in the UK). Understated lighting and crisp acoustics farther accentuate Vega’s stunning arrangements and a singular voice that has resulted in a reputable career of nearly 40 years.
Leading into the Latin-style Caramel, she sings while Leonard accompanies on guitar, her voice remaining untouched as it glides over poetic lyrics. Curating the set around anecdotes – after all this is a tour dubbed “An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories” – the vocalist provides context to Gypsy, relating her romance as a camp “disco dance and folk-singing counsellor” in the Adirondack mountains, the audience attentively listening and laughing. Liverpool follows, and there’s a touch of nostalgia, as the singer knows she is playing a lot of older material, promising new work next year. She switches to a cover of Elvis Costello’s Lipstick Vogue alongside her own Heroes Go Down. It’s a fast-paced change, but it is Vega’s track that stands out. There are innumerable highlights in the set, another being Rock in This Pocket (Song of David), which the singer performed at a benefit concert for Ukraine a year ago. The wonderful Solitude Standing is another great gem, the guitar providing a haunting backdrop for the singer; in contrast, hit single Left of Centre sees Vega taking centre-stage, owning it – the audience just wishes it could last longer.
Performed in the reworked style by British group DNA, Tom’s Diner is another standout in a near-perfect gig, Leonard playing the beats from a loop pedal while Vega walks jauntily across the space. Drums are omitted from the entire performance, a bare-bones affair, and a more expansive variety of instruments might have livened up the set, but the minimal approach showcases the artist’s songwriting skill and musicianship.
The encore includes Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side (the musicians were good friends, and Vega watched the rocker perform numerous times, but only saw this song live once). She closes with “something loud and distorted”, telling the audience it’s time for Leonard to “melt your faces off” as Blood Makes Noise reveals an experimental side and reiterates her range as an artist.
Photos: Virginie Viche
For further information and future events visit Suzanne Vega’s website here.
Watch the video for the single Left of Centre here: