By LETICIA CHAI
This past Thursday, I slipped on my slickest black blazer and headed to the Suzanne Vega concert at the Hangar Theater. I entered the intimate amphitheater-style space and cozied up in one of the plush red seats between adults who looked like they could be around my parents’ age. I could not remember the last time I had gone to a non-freestanding concert, complete with a concession stand serving wine (of which I did not partake).
When the lights finally dimmed, Dan Smalls, a Cornell alum and talent buyer, presented the opening act: Chris Berkeley. The slightly balding man in Clarks and chinos grabbed his Honey Dipper guitar and hooked up his harmonica. My heart began to race and I scanned the venue for the nearest exits. I will listen to anything but country music. Unfortunately, I was stuck in the middle of the row and on either side of me were couples who I dared not disturb as they enjoyed, what I assume, was a rare date away from their children.
Before I could escape, Berkeley began strumming away and blowing into one of his many harmonicas. He tapped on wooden boxes beneath his feet and lulled me into a folksy tune. Whew, I thought. Not country, but folk music. His almost Mumford & Sons style rung out and I began to bounce my foot with the steady beat. Something about his voice reminded me of Adam Levine’s in the feel-good summer flick, Begin Again. Humorously, he assured us he wouldn’t ride on our excitement for Suzanne Vega much longer and within the following minutes he cleared the stage.
I eagerly leaned in, trying to guess which side of the curtain she would emerge from. An aged man in the tightest grey skinny jeans I had ever seen slipped out from the left and grabbed an electric guitar. His platinum blonde spiky hair bobbed as he began looping a basic harmony. Later, I would learn this part skater part rocker was Gerry Leonard, a lead guitarist famous for his extensive work with David Bowie. Not far behind him, Vega slinked onto the stage. Her renown all-black outfit, complete with patent black kitten heels, gleamed in the light. I was mesmerized by her red lipstick as her bluesy voice filled the venue.
She asked if anyone had heard her new album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, released in February. Members of the audience politely hollered. Her red lips curled into an approving smile before launching into an introduction of “Fool’s Complaint.”
“This song is about the Fool, the first of the tarot cards … He’s optimistic though we can see he’s about to fall off a cliff,” she says, motioning to herself with a wink. “Kind of like how I feel sometimes.”
Throughout the concert, Vega acts like the audience members are her old friends with whom she is simply sharing some thoughts. She casually tells us what she has struggled with and how they have manifested in her music. Many of her songs include serious introspection and an exploration of the conflict between the spiritual and materialistic world. Though a large part of her music concerns gloomy subjects, she masterfully weaves in humorous stories and more lighthearted songs.
Strumming her guitar, she tells us of her experience as an 18 year-old folk singer and disco-dance counselor at a sleep-away camp in upstate New York. Vega explains that her hit love song, “Gypsy,” was written as a goodbye present to the arts and crafts counselor at the neighboring boys’ camp, an 18-year-old from Liverpool.
From my seat in the back, I can see the crowd swaying with the song. Some guy unsuccessfully attempts to start a clap to the beat, but is ignored as everyone else seems to be experiencing the music in their own space and time. The duet of guitars weaves together beautifully, as Leonard and Vega lean in towards each other and strum in harmony.
Towards the end of her concert, Vega whips out the crowd-pleasing “Tom’s Diner.” She turns to each of the three sections of the theater, serenading everyone. As the song comes to an end, the audience erupts in applause and Vega deservingly receives a standing ovation.
When she reemerges from the curtain for her encore, Vega humorously asks if we want more. A young woman in the second row squeaks, “Yes! Please! In Liverpool!”
“You’re lucky we rehearsed that during the soundcheck,” Vega jokes.
The sultry song begins and the young woman is almost falling off of her chair in anticipation. Vega closes her eyes and sings into the mic. The pixie-cut rocking fan follows, mouthing the words in unison. I watch as she sits bewitched by the performance of what I can guess is one of her favorite songs.
These are the moments that remind me of the power of live shows and the importance of an engaging artist whose music is both heartfelt and honest. Suzanne Vega exemplifies such a musician. Her determination to share her music, despite being dropped by two record labels, is a testament to her passion for the trade and her dedication to her mighty, though smaller, fan-base. I owe one of the best nights I have enjoyed since arriving in Ithaca to Vega’s performance.