SXSW Live Shot: Suzanne Vega

The queen of melancholic urban folk hushes church

When the top hat goes on, the magic starts. Well, nearly. In the seemingly acoustically perfect Central Presbyterian Church, the stylishly chapeau’d Suzanne Vega had the traditional technical problems as she stop-started with brokenhearted “Marlene on the Wall.”

Photo by Sandy Carson

Popping monitors finally fixed by Phil the sound guy, Vega eased into a set drawn from her first two albums and this year’s Tarot-obsessed Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. That’s a tongue-twister for a title as the singer despairingly noted (“This morning it was announced as The Queen of Particles”), but it adds suitably to her canon of melancholic urban folk.

It speaks to how early and precisely Vega established her brand that Queen could be seamlessly balanced by a selection from her initial releases – her eponymous 1985 debut and Solitude Standing. As the other half of this semi-electric duo, Gerry Leonard layered those seminal works with loops and feedback, meaning Vega could recreate “Tom’s Diner” closer to the genre-bending DNA remix than her acoustic original. For Queen’s “Jacob and the Angel,” the former David Bowie guitarist’s rhythms made it a penitent man’s crawl towards redemption.

As for Vega, she seemed a little thrown by the audience’s overly-respectful responses. “You’d think we were in a church,” she commented after polite applause for the drinking-song life-lessons of “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain.” Yet the location was only partially to blame: After a despairing “The Queen and the Soldier” – the defining example of her melancholic, metaphor-laden tales – the audience was already floored with rapt devotion.

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Suzanne Vega, SXSW Music 2014, Gerry Leonard, David Bowie

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