Suzanne Vega performs "The Man Who Played God" in Prague
At the request of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, folk/alt-rock legend Suzanne Vega performed in Prague on Saturday with the likes of Lou Reed and Joan Baez to honor the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The New York City songwriter who once rolled out hits like "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" seized the opportunity to counterbalance the weight of her looming, rock-star-studded European appearance with a quieter show at Harvard's Sanders Theatre on November 6.
"Do you mind if we rehearse a song [for the Prague show]?" Vega asked the not-quite-full Sanders Theatre prior to beginning "Rock In This Pocket (Song of David)" from her 1992 album 99.9 F°. "Judge us harshly," she pleaded.
The seated show began promptly at 8pm, and consisted of Vega and her guitar on the stark stage, sometimes accompanied by her stoic electric bassist and a Johnny Cash look-alike of an electric guitarist. In her classic narratorial style, Vega made like Garrison Keillor and stopped between nearly every song to explain the tune's origin or recite an anecdote -- like the time she'd try to make money selling Avon products but failed because she never wore make-up and was "really into Army/Navy Surplus."
The venue's 180-degree design, the stripped-down, percussionless backing band, and Vega's minimalist outfit -- an oversized black blazer and black skinny tie -- all magnified her tendency to come off like she was reciting a dramatic monologue or slam poetry. This was especially true for "My Favorite Plum" (off her 1996 Nine Objects of Desire), a slow, dark number distinctly reminiscent of musical theater. "The thing that will make your life complete is sort of represented by the plum," said Vega, entrenched in the poetical metaphors of her lyrics.
Later came "The Queen & The Soldier," the theatrical recitation of a very Shakespearean relationship between, yes, a queen and a soldier. "This is the point in the set where we play an old song," Vega announced before plucking the first note. "A long, sad old song with a tragic ending." Her dramatic introductions were matched by dramatic flourishes at the end of each tune, followed by pauses, deep breaths, and even deeper bows.
While cleanly performed, Vega's songs on Friday lacked the artful instrumentation that got her noticed and deemed as "eclectic" during her rise to fame in the late '80s. The closest the low-key, humorless set came to harnessing the energy of her more exuberant Prague show (where a full orchestra joined her onstage) was Vega's performance of "The Man Who Played God," a tune written as part of Dark Night of the Soul, an audiovisual collaboration between Sparklehorse, Danger Mouse, and David Lynch.
The performance was, if nothing else, exquisitely tailored to the the slightly-younger-than-baby-booming folk lovers who first jumped on the Vega train when her breakout album dropped. Plucking songs from her earliest days to her latest work, she delivered her set with an air of wisdom and serenity that seemed to satisfy the equally subdued crowd who shelled out $40-$50 for the privilege. But if this show was a warm-up for her Czechoslavakia appearance, it seems Vega was saving her energy for blowing out the candles on Prague's Communism-toppling birthday cake.