Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Suzanne Vega, Ari Hest concert review: Los Angeles

photo by Armando Brown
A version of my review originally ran in the Orange County Register.

Suzanne Vega had just finished providing background details on jaunty new tune “Fool’s Complaint” at El Rey Theatre when she added, “You don’t really need to know any of this to enjoy the song.”

On the contrary. This veteran New York City folk-rocker/poet often leaves listeners enlightened about topics they rarely hear elsewhere; “Luka,” her Top 5 hit in 1987 about child abuse, is the most obvious example. The fascinating Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, Vega’s first all-new studio album in seven years following a series of EPs featuring revamped material, is chock full of intriguing tracks.

There are lyrical references to tarot card characters, the physical and spiritual worlds, rapper Macklemore, Czech playwright/politician Vaclav Havel and Mother Teresa. Produced by Irish guitarist Gerry Leonard, a longtime Vega collaborator, the effort came out last February and reached No. 5 on Billboard’s folk chart.

It’s a rich sonic tapestry that utilizes banjo, mandolin, harmonium, trumpet, a Prague chamber orchestra, Taiko drums, jagged guitar work and more to winning effect. Why adult rock radio isn’t all over this material is a mystery.

Fans can also savor a solid new archival DVD from 2003, Solitude Standing: Live, out now via Wienerworld. Despite the title, it was actually filmed in Rome during a world tour for Retropective and a book of song lyrics/poetry. She is accompanied by a bassist on most tracks and has an Italian interpreter on stage. Between some of the 17 songs are poems and stories. The DVD special features include a brief, yet insightful interview and photo gallery.

Tellingly, the El Rey pre-show music featured David Bowie. Several stellar musicians who either played on or toured behind his last two albums (Leonard, Tony Levin, Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, Zachary Alford, Catherine Russell) contributed to Tales as well.

photo by Armando Brown
Leonard was Vega’s lone instrumental foil onstage at this seated L.A. concert, moving from electric to acoustic models and triggering sonic loops for a full sonic scope.

Sporting a black top hat, the star opened the 90-minute set with her debut single from 1985, “Marlene on the Wall.” She revived its rapid-fire wordplay softly and quickly strummed acoustic guitar while Leonard supplied tasteful accents.

Stripped of bossa nova sheen, “Caramel” remained lush and saw Vega pull off a sustained vocal ending. (Despite suffering a cold, her whispery pipes were mostly clear throughout the evening.) “Jacob and the Angel,” the first of five new songs, was tantalizing and trance-like. 

Prior to the intricate, alluring “Gypsy” (off platinum-certified 1986 breakthrough Solitude Standing), Vega reminisceda bit, first about Jeff Gold - the man responsible for helping launch her folk career in Greenwich Village, who happened to be on hand Saturday. Humorous anecdotes about failed attempts at being an Avon lady and receptionist followed.

Before clapping through it for rhythm, she introduced the feisty tongue-twister “Don’t Cork What You Can’t Contain” by admitting surprise that the title wasn’t a subconsciously remembered old proverb. Then she talked about the studio version’s Arabian-sounding sample of “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent – and proceeded to perform some of the suggestive lyrics before getting too embarrassed because her father was in the audience.

The pair rocked out, gently, on a trio of highlights: Leonard gave Pretty in Pink soundtrack cut “Left of Center” an edgier sonic thrust; his staccato playing on “Blood Makes Noise” was truly menacing (and lived up to Vega’s “do you want your faces melted off?” question to the crowd); and the fuzzy bursts and barbed wordplay during an ominous “I Never Wear White” were astounding. (It easily could fit onto the playlist at KROQ, which decades ago used to play her music.)

Vega closed the main set with her most enduring songs: first “Luka,” still subtly powerful, and then Leonard looped in some rhythmic bits to bring their funky performance of “Tom’s Diner” more in line with DNA’s 1990 dance remix smash, with its originator working the stage in black high heels and having fun.

With any luck, she will return with a full band in the future and make her new Tales soar even higher.

photo by Armando Brown
Another NYC artist, Ari Hest, opened with a commanding 40-minute acoustic set. The NPR favorite, who started putting out albums a decade ago, has placed songs in various network television dramas, was once signed to Columbia Records and has shared producers with Vega: her ex-husband Mitchell Froom helmed 2007’s winsome The Break-In, while Leonard handled 2012’s The Fire Plays.

At the El Rey, the 34-year-old at times recalled Mat Kearney or a more serious Matt Nathanson, with introspection that left a lasting impression. He previewed a few songs from impressive upcoming album Shouts and Whispers, due June 8.

Best of that lot was the easygoing “How We’ll Always Be,” about giving up the fight, and the hopeful “Bonafide.” Other highlights included “Concrete Sky,” during which Hest banged lightly on his guitar for a beat, the highly appealing “All Because” and the slight jazz feel of “Something to Look Forward To.”

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