Suzanne Vega isn’t going away anytime soon. Not physically, not artistically, not commercially. Looking lithe and preternaturally young for someone who turned 50 in July, Vega showcased 19 of her songs — written over a 32-year span — with an equal mixture of unforced charm and sophistication to a sold-out, increasingly appreciative audience to open a three-night engagement at the Dakota on Monday.
Vega in concert eschews the sort of antic behavior, melodrama, or even unpredictability that might foster jaw-dropping amazement from her audience. Opting for quality control over the risks of excitement, her songs, performed with the strong but spare backing from bass and guitar, hew closely to their recorded versions. But there is also a refreshing lack of pandering and dumbing down. To the extent Vega has a performing persona, it is to shed a little light on the tunes and their context, then let them finish the stories themselves.
Yet there were some choice moments, such as when Vega, explaining why she was compelled to write the answer song “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May,” first had to explain the Rod Stewart tune, “Maggie May,” that prompted it. “The story is that Rod Stewart was dating an older woman,” she began, before devilishly tossing off the best line of the night: “Which I assume he does not do anymore.”
The material ranged widely over her catalog (“Days of Open Hand” from 1990 was the lone album totally omitted) although familiar to anyone who owns her “Best of” compilations. She played her two “hits” of course; “Luka,” the affecting domestic violence narrative told from a child’s perspective, and “Tom’s Diner,” a gently, jivin’, often-covered collection of vignettes at a greasy spoon. But their inherent strength was partially sapped by the inevitably rote redundance stemming from their frequency on the set list and the discipline of the musicians.
By contrast, Vega’s solo rendition of “Gypsy,” a romantic song she said she wrote to a fellow camp counselor when she was 18, was a pleasant surprise. And it was a treat to hear a brand-new number, “The Man Who Played God,” co-written with Sparklehorse and produced by Danger Mouse for NPR. Texturally, the performances included the relatively raucous blues of “Tombstone,” the quirky angles, “experimental” tempos and staccato vocals of “Blood Makes Noise,” and the ethereal “Calypso,” which led the first encore and segued into the lilting, classically singer-songwriter tune “Rosemary.” Heavy applause brought the trio back for a one-song second encore, “In Liverpool.”
Bottom line, this was a thoroughly satisfying, though hardly exceptional, performance. Vega and the Dakota make a good match. For about the same ticket price as they would pay for a bolted down seat in the State or Orpheum theater, her ardent fans can catch her in an atmosphere that is at once more intimate, sophisticated, and informal — although the hefty cost of food and drinks must be factored in. On Vega’s part, she gets to stay put and escape the numbing tour grind. As she said on Monday, “three days in one place feels like a vacation.”
“Marlene on the Wall”
“Small Blue Thing”
“Frank & Ava”
“New York Is a Woman”
“My Favorite Plum”
“Left of Center”
“Blood Makes Noise”
“The Man Who Played God”
“The Queen & the Soldier”
“(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May”
“Calypso” (first encore)
“Rosemary” (first encore)
“In Liverpool” (second encore)