October 17, 2012 5:08 pm

Suzanne Vega, Barbican, London

The singer gave a memorable silver jubilee performance of her ‘Solitude Standing’ album
Suzanne Vega on stage at the Barbican©Getty

Suzanne Vega on stage at the Barbican

“I’m sorry to remind you,” teased Suzanne Vega, “that it’s been 25 years.” Aficionados will remember her early appearances on The Tube, singing “Marlene on the Wall” like a Leonard Cohen character come to life, but her bestselling album remains 1987’s Solitude Standing, and she celebrated its silver jubilee by playing it, in order, from start to finish.

There are perhaps three Vega albums that one would thank her for playing in their entirety, but happily this one tops the list. In common with that year’s megaseller, U2’s The Joshua Tree, it starts with singles but then gets more interesting. There was an instant hush for the a cappella “Tom’s Diner” – “You guys were hardly even breathing,” marvelled Vega afterwards – and then a smatter of appreciation for “Luka”. Then came the densely textured, elusive songs that make up the bulk of the record: “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry”, the surrealist haze of “Night Vision” with its hat tip to Paul Éluard; the wine-dark undertow of “Calypso”, narrative washing back and forth like Zachary Mason avant la lettre.

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Vega provided a director’s commentary on the songs, remembering Prince dancing on stage to “Luka”; recalling listening to Peter Gabriel’s So and Philip Glass while writing “Solitude Standing” (its nimble chattering keyboards, the only really dated moment on the record, replaced by nimble guitar). She told of how she wanted Gabriel to write “Wooden Horse”, and the performance here, with a massive dragging torque of drumrolls, sounded as if he had.

Introducing “Gypsy”, she told how she wrote the song as a parting gift after a summer romance with a Liverpudlian camp counsellor. (In return, he gave her his bandana.) “People always ask me, did you ever see him again? Yes I did . . . and he’s here tonight!” The song has a melody that Dylan might have written, but could never have performed with her unaffected tenderness.

In the second half Vega played a selection of other songs, and some strange alchemical afterglow freshened each of them up. “Blood Makes Noise”, often a tedious thrash, was given such a supple swing by Doug Yowell’s drums and Mike Visceglia’s bass that its fragmented pieces fell into place; “Tombstone” found its funk-blues pace; muted trumpet rescued “Some Journey” from starchiness; and “In Liverpool”, a second song about that teenage lover, sounded almost giddy.

As Vega started into an encore, someone called for “Caramel”, and she hesitated, then obliged, the sultry bossa nova sashaying as her voice caressed the microphone as if, finally, her teenage dreams of becoming Astrud Gilberto had all come true.

5 stars

Barbican.org.uk

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