A couple of years ago, Suzanne Vega comfortably sold out the Barbican in London for a quarter-century reprise of her best-known album, Solitude Standing. Any doubts about whether she could repeat the trick for an album of unfamiliar songs, her first new set for seven years, accompanied by only a single guitarist, were unnecessary. Again, the Barbican was crowded to the rafters; again, the opening notes of “Marlene on the Wall” were wildly applauded; again, the first glissando of “Caramel” provoked screams of delight, even before Vega crooned the song as intimately as a murmur in the ear. Her accompanist, Gerry Leonard, brought forth an infinite array of sounds and effects from his guitars and pedals, and Vega’s cool vocals were to the fore.
Her stock-in-trade is mordant, funny, dissociated vignettes of urban life. Her new album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is, by her standards, positively mystical, with nods to the Tarot and to Greek, Arabian and Jewish mythology. In performance, the new songs held their own with her earlier songbook: it seemed perfectly plausible that in 25 years’ time they too will fill a hall. “Jacob and the Angel”, on record a cluttered mess of clapping, was here stripped-down and stark, Leonard’s silvered guitar pouring down like the Shekhinah as Vega sang under a vast white halo projected on the ceiling. “Fool’s Complaint” pitted an everyman Fool against a Queen of Pentacles portrayed as the playing card of the 1 per cent. And “Crack in the Wall” offered a “glimpse into another realm”, as Vega explained it, in terms that recalled Doctor Who and Narnia. “And so it goes,” sang Vega, channelling Kurt Vonnegut, and cueing up another guitar solo. At the end of “Road Beyond This One (Horizon)” Alison Balsom strolled on from the wings to add a Baroque trumpet voluntary.
The raucous rather than mystical “I Never Wear White” has already attracted attention, with US book chain Barnes & Noble refusing to play the song in its stores so as not to discomfit Bible Belt customers. “I never wear white,” sang Vega with gusto, to a grungy guitar backing, “White is for virgins … Black … for the bastard.” These were the unacceptable words. “I wish,” she mused drily, “that I’d called the album Virgins and Bastards. Then it could have been banned everywhere.”
Towards the end, “Luka” brought the audience to its feet, and Vega had to suppress a premature standing ovation to deliver “Tom’s Diner” against a scratchy hip-hop rhythm on guitar. Strutting the edge of the stage like Marlene Dietrich on the prowl, she mislaid her place in the song, shrugged it off, restarted.
For an encore, she played “Walk on the Wild Side”, her resigned, whispery Sprechgesang inhabiting the song so perfectly, against muted bleats from Balsom, that she seemed to have written it. The audience shouted requests in such profusion that satisfying them all would have required two further concerts; recalled again and again, she and Leonard did their best.