The last word you’d associate with Suzanne Vega is earthy. With her ethereal voice and oblique, analytical lyrics, the New York singer-songwriter has been the most cerebral of pop stars. The Barnard-educated Vega resembled the pale, severe, angular girls you’d see in downtown cafes, reading de Beauvoir or Foucault, writing argumentative notes in the margins. But at the Knitting Factory Hollywood (one of three West Coast appearances), Vega exuded an unexpected warmth and humor. She was, in a word, haimish.
Vega was dressed in black slacks and a long dress, with her hair grown out; both her appearance and performance were softer and more approachable than in the past. She accepted gifts from the crowd, and borrowed a fan’s copy of her book, “The Passionate Eye” (which she thoughtfully autographed before handing back), to read from the stage; she teased the audience with a few bars of “Luka,” her biggest hit, then abruptly stopped, cautioning that when she played that song, the show was over.
The 90-minute concert covered her entire career, from an early song she wrote as a camp counselor to a selection of tunes from her just completed, as-yet-unnamed album (due this fall). While the adoring crowd was treated to favorites including “Marlene on the Wall,” “Small Blue Thing” and “World Before Columbus,” and the rarely performed “Left of Center,” the new material was equally well-received. Obviously written in response to the breakdown of her marriage to producer Mitchell Froom, songs such as “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May,” “Penitent,” “Widow’s Walk” and the droll “Solitaire” paired a new emotional directness with her customary melodic elegance.
If she has returned to her folk roots, she has not completely annulled the textural and rhythmic contributions of her ex-husband. With longtime bassist Mike Visceglia providing supple melodic and rhythmic variety, Vega appears to have entered a new phase in her career, finding an exquisite balance between the mind and heart.