Suzanne Vega,
with Nerina Pallot
at the Anvil,
Basingstoke, Engand
(23 June 2005)

A barefoot woman in a black dress stands center stage strumming an acoustic guitar. The song she opens with is mellow and relaxing; there's a folk-like, yet bluesy, feel to it, with lyrics about "the blue light." Yet, it turns out to be upbeat, talking about how "all good people know the world will be okay."

Nerina Pallot, Suzanne Vega's guest on her recent UK tour, almost steals the show. Used to performing with a band, Pallot plays solo on either guitar or piano, where she seems truly accomplished. Her piano style is reminiscent of Tori Amos and Vienna Teng on the poignant "Idaho"; she's mature and relaxed as she strokes the ivories and brings out strong emotions with both voice and keyboards. However, she seems almost deferential to the venue when she admits that she "played here a long time ago when I was a kid in a choir," adding that it "still seems as huge as it did then." Her voice becomes smoky oak on "Mr. King," a song written for a former boss. She's nostalgic ("I imagined life had purpose") and assertive ("Oh, Mr. King, I have changed"). Pallot is graceful and accomplished, a treasure to discover this early in the evening.

When Vega takes the stage, accompanied only by long-time bassist Mike Visceglia, the audience, sufficiently warmed up by Pallot, is ready for Vega's mix of new and old material. Her first hit, "Marlena on the Wall," is taken care of immediately, and she segues right into another old song, "Small Blue Thing," after checking with the audience on how to pronounce "Basingstoke." She starts to talk with us only as she introduces "Caramel," calling it a song about "wanting things you shouldn't have." Despite her initial reticence, she seems more at ease on stage than when she debuted on the national scene a good 20-plus years ago as she chats about caramel and treacle pudding.

Although she's still performing songs she wrote as a teenager, such as "Gyspy," and having to reiterate introductions told countless times, she's able to laugh about her own mistakes, informing us that this show was the first in which she managed to get through "Unbound," a new number, without forgetting the last chorus. She reads the lyrics to some new songs; they're not chiseled in her brain just yet. "Mr. B." is performed completely a cappella; she has some words and the melody. When there's a problem on "I'll Never Be Your Maggie May," she stops and jokingly chides Visceglia about how he's supposed to help her, resuming the song after thanking him for his assistance.

His bass is a vital part of the show, sometimes to good effect. She drops her guitar for "Blood Makes Noise" and sings along only to the bass. With the audience participating by clapping to the beat, the song seems more like a performance at a poetry slam competition than a concert. With "Left of Center," however, the pairing of her light voice against a mechanical-sounding bass guitar seems incongruous, making the sweet-sounding vocals compete too much for attention.

Her own guitar makes up for the lack of a band on "In Liverpool" (after a brief joke about what would have happened had "that guy been from Basingstoke" instead), and "Queen and the Soldier," an audience request, was performed solo. She admits after singing it that she'd wondered when she'd written it if people would like it. Perhaps it resonates differently with audiences today, particularly since she chooses to follow it with "Anniversary," her post-9/11 song about the souls of the people who died.

Closing with the predicted "Luka" and "Tom's Diner," perhaps her best-known songs, she discusses Casa Alianza, a charity she supports (there is no merchandise table at this gig, only buckets in which to drop off donations) and returns to applause with "Undertow" and "Rosemary."

If memory serves correctly, I first saw Vega play live in the summer of 1984, when her first album was released and "Marlena on the Wall" was receiving airplay on FM stations. Now, 21 years later, it feels good to say that while both of us have aged, she's matured as a performer, demonstrating more confidence on stage than when she was in her 20s and generally seeming to feel in charge of her music.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 3 September 2005