Friday morning, I tapped play on Suzanne Vega’s An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, which captures a New York-themed concert at the legendary Café Carlyle, a small club inside a ritzy residential hotel located on the Upper East Side, the Hotel Carlyle. Accompanied by guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards, she leads an aural tour of the Big Apple that provides insights into lives large and small, from icons Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to a little boy named Luka.
Recorded on March 14, 2019, the 16-song set is essentially a collection of poetic and provocative spacetime soliloquies with melodies that are equally evocative and strong. The songs are imbued with a sense of place, in other words, as well as of the characters who populate it. “New York Is My Destination,” which she wrote for her one-woman play based on the life of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), is a great example:
The show mixes her best-known numbers with lesser-known album tracks, and features a tribute to an artist who changed her life when, at age 19, she saw him in concert – her first live show, no less – at Columbia University, Lou Reed. In the introduction, she explains that he “really turned things around for me in terms of songwriting and songs and rock ’n’ roll. I mean, that show really showed me what rock ’n’ roll was.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, she expanded on that intro: “[E]ncountering his music changed my way of writing songs. Suddenly I knew I had complete freedom as a songwriter and nothing was forbidden.” I hear another influence beyond subject matter: the specificity of her lyrics. Like Reed, she delivers deft portraits and scenes by honing in on minute details that speak volumes, and often does so with a journalist’s reserve. “Tom’s Diner,” delivered here in an arrangement reminiscent of the remixed DNA rendition, is a case in point.
“Anniversary,” which she wrote a year after 9/11, is another example; her restraint feeds the song’s strength. As it happened, it began to play just about the time I left home on 9/11 itself, which is when I learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “Thick with ghosts, the wind whips round in circuitries/Carrying words as strangers exchange pleasantries/Do they intrude upon your private reveries?” left me slack-jawed. Life may move on, but the souls of the departed are with us, still.
(The above performance, by the way, isn’t from this album, but from last week; she uploaded it to YouTube on Friday – the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.)
In any event, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories is a strong career summary of an oft-overlooked trailblazer; Vega, as I’ve noted before, was instrumental in the resurgence of folk-flavored music in the 1980s, a time when it seemed to have lost an audience, and then helped forge a new path in the ’90s with an electronica-folk hybrid. If you’re unfamiliar with her music, the album is an excellent entry point; if, on the other hand, you’re well versed on all things Suzanne, you’ll want to listen to it a few dozen times, if not more. It’s a sterling set.