Little Theater, May 31
About two-thirds of the way through her Saturday night show
in Saratoga Springs, the roadie took Suzanne Vega’s guitar
off the stage. Backed only by bassist Mike Visceglia and drummer
Doug Yowell, Vega clapped and sang “Fat Man and Dancing Girl.”
It was a lively, percussive, utterly great version of a song
that, on the original album (1994’s 99.9 F), achieved
an equally great result through some very slick arranging
and producing. She was having fun—the drummer left, and then
Vega and Visceglia performed “Left of Center,” which was,
back in the day, her first foray into pop music. Vega’s cool,
detached singing style has always worked well in a pop context.
She continued to perform sans guitar for a few more songs,
including an intense “Blood Makes Noise.”
If anyone can take the folk out of folk-rock, it’s
Vega. When some DJs named DNA remixed the a cappella “Tom’s
Diner” with synth sounds and beats and turned it into a Top
5 hit, she wasn’t bothered—she often performed it the same
way herself. As she did at the Spa Little Theater.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t get into it with her acoustic
guitar. There were a surprising number of songs from her eponymous
first album in the set: “Cracking,” “Freeze Tag,” “Marlene
on the Wall,” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” She gave the
latter a hilarious introduction: “Are you in the mood for
a long, heavy ballad in a minor key? Because I’ve got one
of those.” (Then again, the audience seemed to be packed with
longtime fans who actually knew all these songs.) She
also performed two kinda sexy numbers from her underrated
album Nine Objects of Desire, “Stockings” and “Caramel.”
Her droll between-song banter kept the crowd entertained.
She took the time to explain that her 1994 song “Rock in the
Pocket” was about David and Goliath—something she thought
was obvious, but one concert reviewer thought was a metaphor
for a lover’s penis size.
It was the second show of her current tour, but there weren’t
too many early-tour glitches; the few they had were forgiven
by the almost-sold-out crowd, and joked about by Vega and
her band. I was surprised that she didn’t play more songs
from her most recent album Beauty & Crime, but
she said the set list was a work in progress.
Kudos to SPAC for staging more shows in the Spa Little Theater.
They should keep it up.
The Sparrow Quartet
Egg, May 30
Ever since Claude Debussy heard a performance of a Javanese
gamelan, or cymbal orchestra, at the 1889 Universal Exposition
in Paris, and was inspired to compose in a new Impressionist
style, musical meetings of the East and West have yielded
often striking results. Most recently, old-time banjoist and
singer Abigail Washburn’s new, high-powered acoustic group
the Sparrow Quartet has blended Chinese folk melodies with
elements of Appalachian string-band music and classical music
to create a hybrid sound that proved, for the most part, unique
and engrossing at a well-attended show at the Egg last Saturday.
Under the light of two spherical, red silk lanterns, Washburn,
wearing a red ankle-length dress, was accompanied by bluegrass-banjo
hero Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen on the five-string violin,
and cellist Ben Sollee. Even the configuration of instruments
was unusual—although the cello was heard in early string-band
music, you rarely if ever see a banjo played with three-finger
technique alongside one plucked in the older clawhammer style.
The group opened with “Overture” from their eponymously titled
debut CD. As the cello droned away, the other musicians introduced
themselves with terse melodic statements. Washburn frailed
a lick, Fleck chirped out a riff in parallel fifths to invoke
an Oriental mood, and Driessen tossed off a smooth bluegrass
phrase or two before he and Sollee played a short interlude
reminiscent of chamber music. Although these nebulous echoes
and glints of three cultures were intriguing, nothing of substance
ever coalesced, and the piece seemed awfully pretentious.
The music went way uphill, though, with a love song from the
Chinese province of Sichuan of where Washburn went to school.
She sang a traditional pentatonic minor melody in a somewhat
breathy soprano while the group provided a string-band type
backup. As Fleck, Washburn, and Driessen soloed in turn, their
impeccable musicianship signaled that a fine evening of music
was in store.
And so it was. Later in the first set, “A Kazakh Melody,”
a folk tune from Central Asia set over a lush, gorgeous harmonization
by the strings showed off the band’s arranging skills. In
“Everybody Does It Now” the foursome changed gears for a hokum
blues tune with dazzling breaks from Driessen and Fleck, who
is perhaps the most virtuosic three-finger-style banjoist
During the second set, Washburn, a strong and precise singer,
delivered superb vocals on Led Zeppelin’s gospel-styled song
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” In another vein altogether, “Strange
Things” was an ominously apt rendition of a 1952 Henry Green
song bemoaning a world on an uncertain and dangerous course.
The Sparrow Quartet, too, is a strange thing, but a brilliant
and original one all the same.
Photo: Julia Zave
Year in the Life
Capital Region’s Jim Gaudet and the Railroad
Boys celebrated the one-year anniversary of their monthly
residency at Tess’ Lark Tavern on Monday night. Gaudet, who
took a self-imposed hiatus from performing for much of the
last decade before returning with last year’s Recalling