Sunday, October 6, 2013

Suzanne Vega Live In Iowa City

Suzanne Vega

Live At The Englert Theatre, Iowa City, Iowa

September 28, 2013

We were kidless.

And for those of you with children, you understand how precious those moments are.

It’s during these times when you sleep in until 10:00 am, which is like noon in twenty-something years.

It’s during these times you let the phone go to voice mail.

It’s during these times you go to restaurants you don’t go to as a family, because they don’t have kid’s menus or mechanical animals on a pretend stage.

It’s during these times you pretend Suzanne Vega concerts qualify as “a romantic night out.”

I’ll confess that when I purchased the tickets at the beginning of summer, it was an impulse purchase. I instinctively put a pair of tickets into the shopping cart about five minutes after learning of the show at Iowa City’s Englert Theatre, which has now become a haunt that I visit with the same frequency as I used to for Gabe’s Oasis a few decades ago.

It is not lost on me that this is clearly a sign of growing older, but then again, isn’t the entire notion of buying tickets to a Suzanne Vega concert?

As a matter of fact, when I shared that I had just purchased tickets to see Vega to others, most reactions were ones of limited familiarity or complete ambivalence. It was over a quarter-century ago when the singer/songwriter was saddled with the unfortunate title as the artist responsible for spearheading the female folk revival of the mid-80’s while Vega is now saddled with the prospect of having to explain what the female folk revival of the mid-80’s even was.

Briefly, the notion of an artist even picking up an acoustic instrument in a decade seemingly intent on making music sound as artificially enhanced as possible was a fairly novel one in that decade. So performers like Vega, Michelle Shocked, the Indigo Girls and others were somewhat unusual. That unique distinction made them successful, but now, a time when such respectful simplicity is a mainstream winner, acts like Vega are often forgotten.

"Here's one from Slayer..."
Not that I’m trying to elicit sympathy for Ms. Vega as she navigates the new music business model, because the last time I bothered checking her catalog, I noticed that a lot of her new material was simply new recordings of her old material. That usually spells a conflict with an old label that still retains the rights of an artist’s most popular recordings, or it spells an artist who doesn’t intend on pretending that new material is going to attract new listeners. While I don’t have a horse in that race, I can only tell you that those original issues already have a firm grip on my heart, so there’s no need to check out a different incarnation.

The firm grip that I speak of began one afternoon as I traveled from my hometown of Keokuk, Iowa for the weekend to visit some friends in Iowa City. I had decided to pursue my higher education at the community college level, forcing myself to take nothing but the required curriculum at the local level instead of risking the possibility that the unlimited freedom of a state university may be too much of a distraction for me.

Like Bob Dylan said, “You went to the finest schools, alright…but you only used to get juiced in it.” I was trying to avoid that. And by the second semester, I noticed a few new faces at the community college that were forced or pulled back home because they weren’t able to maintain a passing grade at the big university.

While I’d like to pretend that this decision was entirely responsible, I still managed to find ample time to visit friends in the bigger schools to get an idea of what exactly I was missing.

I have to admit, those were great times. Not only did I pass my first year in the community college (I got high enough of a grade point average to be accepted in all of the four universities’ I applied at), I was able to gauge my tolerance for the extra-curricular activities outside of the lecture halls.

Part of that tolerance included the world of hallucinogens, a world that I drove up to experience during a weekend with a friend who lived in an off-campus apartment.

They say that it’s best to properly prepare for such “trips” and, looking back, it seemed that we really took this advice to heart.

A mutual friend acquired some hallucinogenic mushrooms, a drug that we deemed to be morally acceptable because it was organically derived. For some reason, this was important back then.

We picked a weekend in which my friend’s roommate would be out of town, at least for the night in which we planned a dinner of spaghetti and marinara sauce laced with psilocybin mushrooms.

My friend’s roommate was a magician. More on that later.

On the way to his apartment, I tuned into the student run radio station that came into signal right around Riverside, Iowa. The small community is about 15 miles to the south of Iowa City, giving you an idea of the limitation of KRUI-FM’s transmitter strength.

As with most student-run radio stations, the playlist is filled with new music, eclectic offerings, most which are based on the disc jockey’s whim. It is at that moment when the disc jockey ended a music set with Suzanne Vega’s song, “Small Blue Thing,” a new acoustic song from her just released debut.

That afternoon, before the spaghetti dinner, my friend and I visited downtown Iowa City and hit the required retail outlets of the day, which included the college town’s record stores and lone head shop, The Third Coast. Don’t look for it anymore, it’s not there. Kids don’t do drugs anymore because they get them prescribed from their physician.

At one of those record stores, I purchased the debut album from Suzanne Vega.

By midnight, my mind was expanded, all right, but I will go on record to say that I am a better man for it.

I’m sure that during the time of hallucinating the scene was far from one that suggested that my friend and I were doing anything remotely productive or creative, but give us a break, we had never done this kind of thing before.

There is, somewhere still in my possession, a cassette recording of some of these events. On the sixty minutes of incriminating evidence, there is the sound of my friend taking out every pot and pan that he owned out of his kitchen cabinets, for what reason, I am not entirely sure.

At one point, he calls out for me in some manner of distress. It is obvious from the recording that I am in another room. And even though you cannot hear me at the moment my friend called out for me to return, I know exactly where I had made off too.

I had opened the door to his roommate’s bedroom and discovered a cage with a bunny in it. Like I mentioned before, he was a magician in his spare time, which meant that he would pull a rabbit out of his hat on occasion. Literally. I know then nuance of this trick because my friend and I made $50 once for helping him at one of his gigs. From the back of the stage, you could see the rabbit almost escape from the hat’s secret compartment before the big reveal. He recovered well.

Given my state, the rabbit was a remarkable find. My friend had advised me that his roommate’s room was off limits, but that rule was overlooked when he began examining all of his cookware.

Later on in the tape, the cd of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced began to skip, causing me to immediately to become concerned.

Fuck the rabbit, the technical difficulties were twisting my melon.

The calming quality of “Small Blue Thing” was the first song that came to mind.

I fought with the packaging of the Suzanne Vega disc that I had just purchased and placed the fresh disc into the tray of the CD player.

I pushed play and everything was better.

I remained faithful to Suzanne Vega through 99.9° F, and then somehow are paths separated. But when I saw that she would be playing in Iowa City, the same town in which we first met in nearly three decades before, I felt that faith was involved.

Surprisingly, my wife remembered who she was, albeit it much more traditional fashion. As a kid, she liked Vega’s remixed version of “Tom’s Diner” with DNA, while being totally oblivious to the fact that the song was originally an a cappella track from Vega’s 1987 album, Solitude Standing. She claimed not to remember Vega’s only other hit, “Luka,” also from Solitude Standing, but seemed to recall it when I played it to her.

Since we were a couple for the weekend of the show, we did exactly what you’d expect a couple free of their children for the weekend would do: we napped. The show was early enough (8:00 pm) on a Saturday night, but our newfound opportunity to sleep put us in the precarious position of not being able to have enough time to enjoy a legitimate couple’s dinner at an appropriate restaurant.

I picked a Plan B option: an Irish pub down the street from the Englert that, I’m very happy to say, is exactly the same as it was when I used to visit it during those times from long ago. And since the entire evening was fueled by nostalgia anyway, Mickey’s seemed like the perfect place to pick up a quick sandwich before the show.

The continue to offer the same sandwich that I would have ordered back then and, in a true sign of progress, they now force any smoker’s to go outside to light up.

Another sign of progress: I was probably the oldest person in the bar, a fact that my wife-a dozen years my junior-seemed to get immense pleasure from.

Making our way from Mickey’s, past the homeless and the religious man who was called the read the Bible on the corner of downtown Iowa City on a Saturday night, we walked back to the Englert and took our seats, wonderfully located about four rows back from the stage.

Like I said, I ordered tickets the day they were available.

The show was part of the Iowa Women’s Music Festival and brought a bigger crowd than what my wife was anticipating. The audience contained a lot of couples like ourselves, with the primary difference being that it appeared that it the wives were the ones dragging their husband’s to the show, while for us, it was the other way around.

There seemed to be a higher percentage of lesbian couples in the audience, not that it mattered to us, but it was something we both quietly observed.

And a large contingency of Asian women, including one directly in front of us that nearly jumped out of her seat when Vega dusted off “The Queen And The Soldier” from her first album.

I always felt that tune was kind of corny, but since I’m all about Suzanne Vega, I didn’t complain much.

The set was filled with an ample overview of Vega’s work, a fact that the artist declared right out of the gate by saying, “I supposed we should probably start at the very beginning.” before beginning the show with “Marlene On The Wall.”

Cross one “I hope she sings…” off the list I had in my mind when I was driving down to the show.

Vega whipped out a top hat that I didn’t notice was sitting on a music stand next to her on stage. She placed it on her head in mock showmanship, eliciting a round of applause from the audience who seemed to anticipate the evening as much as I did.

On her left was another guitarist, a grey-haired man working an electric instrument that she identified as Gerry Leonard. “Gerry played on the new David Bowie record.” She advised later on, and sure as shit, his name is all over The Next Day’s performer credits, including a few songwriting credits with Bowie.

Leonard was awesome, a completely understated guitarist with a wide disposal of pedals at his feet which he puts to good use. The highlight came during an unexpected version of “Blood Makes Noise” in which he triggers a loop of a guitar phrase and begins to add some nifty, angular riffs on top of it.

Gerry often provided a nice atmospheric backdrop to Vega’s acoustic rhythms, although the pair would often interplay off each other in straightforward folk progressions. Leonard used an EBow-a device that uses an electromagnetic field to vibrate the strings into ambient drones similar to a bowed instrument-for a song, but more often than not, the active movement of his feet suggested a lot of his bags of tricks were right there on the floor in front of him.

Even my wife was impressed, and she likes Slipknot.

Aside from the duo, a sign language interpreter was off to stage left, having the difficult task of translating all of Vega’s wordy lyrics into visual meanings.

Vega’s set primarily focused on her most her older material, including one track that she paused at the beginning of the verse to recall the lyric, asked her soundman for help, but ended up using the help of an audience member to continue. “You’re right!” she admitted to the fan, taking the lapse of recall good-naturedly.

She brought out “Left Of Center” from the Pretty In Pink soundtrack, which prompted a few enthusiastic cheers from the audience, most of whom (like me) were teenagers when that John Hughes film was first released.

And true to my age, I had completely forgotten that “Left Of Center” was even on Pretty In Pink, but I do remember how the soundtrack featured a large portion of A&M Record roster artists, Vega being one of them. The track’s inclusion was a nice reminder of that coming of age flick, even though it also reminded me how Hughes was wrong to have Molly Ringwald’s character choose that rich prick Blane over Duckie. Fuck that guy.

Vega brought out some new material for an album she hoped to be released “in February” of next year. One of the tracks that may or may not be included on it was a wonderful piece that was featured in the Vaclav Havel memorial show, celebrating the Czech president/writer after he passed away in 2011. The song was evidently brought into the set after Vega travelled through my town of Cedar Rapids on route to the Englert and noticed our Czech/Slovak museum that recently re-opened after the 2008 floods here. It was nice that she pays attention to the places that she visits and the song’s inclusion was welcomed.

At the end of the set, Vega put her guitar down, grabbed her trusty top hat, and made her way to the front of the stage for a version of “Tom’s Diner,” a song she introduced as “a little slice of New York City.” Coffee cups featuring the song title were also available at the small merchandise table in the lobby of the theatre.

One of the women who dragged her husband along to the show got up, moved to the aisle and began dancing. Her husband watched her leave his side before deciding that he should not leave her alone to such spontaneity. He joined her as guitarist Leonard worked out a makeshift rhythm on his guitar, allowing for a growing number in the crowd to stand up and move before the show ended.

Vega stuck around afterwards, to sign copies of her book in the lobby, an offer that many fans took advantage of.

My wife and I didn’t, particularly since I’m much older now and it was past my bedtime.

Besides, I don’t know if Ms. Vega would have appreciated the full extent of our history together and it’s probably not a story that most artists would care about hearing about.

But trust me, lines like “I am scattering like light” (“Small Blue Thing”) served a very important purpose in my life, and Suzanne Vega seemed to be a pre-ordained title that reached my younger ears with specific intentions.

Years later, Vega’s voice continues to be in fine form and her talents undiminished. And while my mind has suffered little from the effects of those magic mushrooms and more from the aging process, I’m still able to remember how Suzanne Vega was a calming voice during a moment when my synapses were triggering misleading visuals and reeking havoc on my auditory senses.

The more things change, I suppose, but it’s nice to know that they can still stay the same even with a clean mind bearing witness.

It reminds me of a lyric of Vega that applies, even though the intent of them was admittedly much different: “I’ve come to set a twisted thing straight.” And for once, this straight mind was pleasantly reminded of a few days when things definitely got a little twisted.

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