After almost 40 years of making music with a body of work comprising 20 releases, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega is still in top form. On her new live album, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, she introduces and sings a setlist of 16 tracks including both her celebrated original compositions and a few choice covers. It’s on those originals, however, where she truly showcases the strength of her songwriting. The live performances, in most cases here, sound just as good as they do on an engineered, studio album.
The tracklist features more than a few of Vega’s hits, including “Tom’s Diner.” Yet, I prefer this live version over its original version and remix by DNA; there is a rougher, smokier style to the version than we get from the 1987 studio version. With this live performance, it feels almost as if you’re in the same room as her. Live albums can often go wrong and sometimes be a bit messy, but “Tom’s Diner,” as well as most of the other tracks (like “Thin Man” or “Pornographer’s Dream”), gain something by being out of the recording box.
“Luka,” from her 1987 release Solitude Standing, is also featured. As one of her earlier works, it seems fitting that it should come up near the beginning—the sequence of songs can be a way to navigate an album, or in this case a performance. Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro always tried to tell some sort of a story, one of mood or emotion, with their albums. However, it seems Vega is more focused on linking one song to the next. In a live performance it is important to keep the crowd on your side and a simple trick is to not only play favorites but to smoothly glide from one to the next.
One of the strongest moments here is “Frank and Eva,” which is from her 2007 album Beauty & Crime (though it is titled “Frank & Ava” there). It comes from her more acoustic-focused middle era, where she has a solid acoustic sound, but also more of a pop vibe. Though my introduction to Vega was on her 2001 album Songs in Red and Gray, which shares many stylistic attributes, I was disappointed to find that she had not included any of those tracks. As with any live album, half the fun here was going back to former releases and comparing the selections, seeing the interesting differences that had to be made in order to be performed live.
The interjected bits of talk and storytelling are, at most, slightly amusing, charming—filling in the gaps for those who might want to know more about her and how she came to New York and the like (and perhaps a reminder of what it’s like to be there since, right now, we can’t). With or without the banter, the performance is uniformly strong, and both fans and newcomers will find plenty to enjoy in the quality and the breadth of tracks chosen. After nearly four decades, Suzanne’s musical skills remain indisputably top notch.
Label: Cooking Vinyl
Born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Konstantin Nicholas Rega currently attends East Anglia's famous MA in Creative Writing with the Ink, Sweat and Tears Scholarship. He is a professional musician, the former host/producer of Jazz Jams on CSRfm 97.4, and twice a Dan Veach Prize for Younger Poets finalist. He is the Fiction Editor for Crack the Spine and a contributor to The Black Lion Journal. He also blogs.