Lou Reed established himself as New York’s musical poet laureate some years back, but he’s facing some pretty stiff competition in that respect from Suzanne Vega, whose new Blue Note album “Beauty and Crime” is the most bracing distillation of Gotham-borne sense memory to arrive in ages. Vega sprinkled songs from the new collection throughout this perf, which served as a release party and birthday celebration. Significantly, the new tunes were placed in a framework that established the durability of the singer-songwriter’s relationship with her longtime home — a latticework of material bookended by a capella and electro-trance renditions of the enduring “Tom’s Diner.”
While both incarnations of that song wafted along on waves of winsomeness, the “Beauty and Crime” selections came across in much sharper focus, from the parched imagery of the 9/11 first-responder paean “Angel’s Doorway” to the loopy swing of the debauched romance “Frank and Ava.” Even more compelling were the songs that saw Vega draw on her own back story — notably the serpentine “Zephyr and I,” on which she recounted a chance meeting with a long-lost graffiti-artist friend, an encounter underscored by Allison Powell’s windswept keyboard line.
Vega’s characters aren’t broadly drawn beautiful losers. Rather, they’re the real inhabitants of society’s margins — the folks who while away the hours furtively observing the action on Gotham’s busy streets from perches on diner stools or glancing surreptitiously through barely cracked Venetian blinds.
She reflected that wariness in a number of ways — whispering “Blood Makes Noise” over a tense, bass-only backing, then all but disappearing into a sonic rabbit hole during “Small Blue Thing.” That was far from the only note Vega struck over the course of the 90-minute perf, though: Her acerbic humor and quiet sensuality bubbled up at charmingly unexpected moments, all the better to evoke memories of a time when spit, rather than polish, dominated the sidewalks of New York.
Vega will perform at the El Rey in Los Angeles on Nov. 14.