It’s still a live experience, one repeats endlessly to oneself, and it is: Suzanne Vega and her band (Jeff Allen – upright bass, Gerry Leonard – lead guitar, Jason Heart – piano & keyboards) are in the Blue Note Cafe in New York at the same time as we’re watching them. This, and a similar concert the night before were fundraisers for closed venues. And, since this venue was also empty there’s no audience chatter – except on the comments chat feed on the side of the computer screen – and the camera could wander as freely as it liked to give close-ups of Gerry Leonard playing lead guitar, or to catch Vega from any angle you could want. As if one has every good seat in the house. So, definitely live.
Getting connected was simple enough: the e-ticket seller Seated.com send a link to one’s email, click the link get to a log-in page. Then click to verify your log-in which gets a code emailed to a previously given phone number. Enter that code and Bob is most certainly your Uncle. The important thing to remember is that the verify code goes to the phone number, not the email account….but even if you’re a little late to the show for whatever reason there’s no need to worry as there’s a 72 hour “re-watch as often as you like” period at the end of the streamed gig.
The gig’s full title was “An evening of New York Songs and Stories with Suzanne Vega“, and the proceedings proper opened with a top-hatted Vega saying “Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” before a spirited rendition of her first single, 1985’s ‘Marlene on the Wall’ – a song of early passions, an unrequited love and a mocking smile that hints at a destiny of solitude. Maybe in these Covid days there’s a new subtext to the line “I’m fighting things I cannot see” – but what this first performance emphasises is that the beautifully singing Suzanne Vega is completely unfazed by the empty seats before her, at the end she went so far as to acknowledge the imagined virtual applause. Through the evening there would also be the odd subdued “yay” from Suzanne Vega as if filling in the expected crowd response – but mostly it’s just poised and enthusiastic and relaxed and only very rarely slightly bemused. The opening section continued with another early hit ‘Luka’ before shifting more clearly to a New York song – ‘New York is a Woman’ which personifies the city as both beautiful and somewhat hard – a survivor. It’s almost a show tune in folk format, wistful in a cabaret style – whilst ‘Frank & Ava’ shows off Suzanne Vega’s rock side on the tempestuous tale of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener’s love affairs. There’s another folky-show tune on ‘New York is my Destination’, taken from Vega’s ‘Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers’ album, mixing fact and fiction with a dream of New York. Of course, if you can dream of coming to New York then you can also hope to escape it, which it is claimed is the theme of ‘Some Journey’, imagining as it does a different life in a different world.
With New York as an overall theme early songs from Vega’s folk leaning coffee house days are bound together with meditations on places and people such as ‘Ludlow Street’ which was, she explains, the “scene of many many long intense parties” and a song from a friend, Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ which in Suzanne Vega’s hands becomes almost a companion piece to ‘Tom’s Diner’ in the sense of embodying detached New York observation.
Having a fuller band than we’ve seen on recent UK tour’s allows for spacious songs like the poignant ‘Anniversary’, written a year after 11th September 2001, to expand to their full size with piano accompaniment. Whilst many of the songs, the odd street name apart, could be set in many cities – the noirish ‘Thin Man’ could be LA or, even better Paris, with the hip-swaying synth accompaniment having a European feel – overall the theme hangs together. With the likelihood of real live gigs still some way off this live stream also hangs together – it’s not quite the same but if you don’t think too hard, sway a bit through ‘Tom’s Diner’, spill beer down your own front and blind yourself with a cameraphone flash once or twice then it is almost…almost…like the real thing again.