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(Folk) Rocker

By Shawn Stone

Suzanne Vega

Spa 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.

Strange Arrangement

The Sparrow Quartet

The 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 out there.

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.

—Glenn Weiser

Photo: Julia Zave

A Year in the Life

The 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 It Quits.

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