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Solitude Standing
By Shawn Stone

Suzanne Vega
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Nov. 9

It was billed as an “Intimate Evening With Suzanne Vega.” Vega, joined only by her longtime bassist Mike Visceglia, held the stage for nearly two hours, singing and telling stories. (In true folkie fashion, Vega never changed guitars, either—she just moved that capo up and down the neck as needed.) Vastly entertaining, it was as intimate as is possible in MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center, a stark, postindustrial black-box-style performance space that was filled almost to capacity.

Vega opened with a pair of tunes from her eponymous 1985 debut, “Marlene on the Wall” and “Small Blue Thing.” As they did all those years ago, these tunes affirmed what made, and still make, Vega unique: her ability to examine deeply personal emotions from a clear, analytical perspective that allows the head equal time with the heart. Her unadorned vocal style only reinforces her disarmingly cool point of view.

Vega invited questions from the audience, but, either out of politeness or unease at shouting inquiries in the anonymous dark, no one asked anything. Vega didn’t need prompting, however. The confirmed New Yorker bragged about finally passing her driving test. She read her short story “My Friend Millie,” a remembrance of her Spanish Harlem childhood, and followed it with a sly version of “Neighborhood Girls.”

She talked about the English dadaist with whom she shared a summer fling at age 17, and then sang both songs that resulted from this brief romance, “Gypsy” and the soaring, aching “In Liverpool.” Vega wryly observed: “I go out with someone for two months, and they get two songs. I’m with someone for five years, and nothing.”

She didn’t explain whether or not this was a reference to her ex-husband and former collaborator Mitchell Froom. However, she followed “Gypsy” with “When Heroes Go Down,” a deft and telling shift in mood from youthful romanticism to adult disillusionment.

Other highlights included the beguiling eroticism of “Caramel” (from her underrated 1996 album Nine Objects of Desire), and a trio of tunes from her latest release, Songs in Red and Gray—“Penitent,” “Widow’s Walk,” and her answer song to the Rod Stewart chestnut, “I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May.”

Of course, she played her Top 40 hits: “Left of Center,” “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka.” She sang “Tom’s Diner” a cappella, naturally, with the audience clapping the mad beats, as in the DNA remix of the song. After a well-earned standing ovation, Vega and Visceglia returned for two more tunes from that first album: the pensive “Some Journey,” and the crowd- pleasing art song “Cracking.” A fine finish for a lovely evening.

When We Was Weird

Frank Black and the Catholics
Saratoga Winners, Nov. 9

Back when he was a Pixie, Frank Black (known then as Black Francis) had a near cultish ability to incite frenzy in fans. At a Pixies show I saw during their last tour in 1991, a friend of mine recognized the opening strain of their song “The Sad Punk” in time to know that the audience was about to boil over. We cleared out of the way; as soon as Black screamed the song’s central lyric—“Extinction”—the whole club exploded into a turbulent watch-your-teeth mosh pit.

He may never be as cool as his past. But at his Saratoga Winners show on Saturday, Black somehow still seemed capable of inspiring audience bedlam. The difference is that now—more than 10 years and eight solo albums later—he just doesn’t care to go there anymore. He still plays Pixies songs: The Winners set contained five, and the crowd went nuts for them. But Black always pulled back at the point of combustion. The dirgelike “Wave of Mutilation” was more of a slow burn. On “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” Black was accompanied only by a mournful pedal-steel guitar, as he stood alone in the spotlight and clutched a beer bottle like a lounge crooner wields a mike. At the song’s dramatic climax—the pause before Black yelled, “And if the devil is six/Then God is seven”—the singer rolled his eyes, as if the lyrics weren’t nearly as clever as countless college-age music fans have thought they are.

Black is far from angry these days, it’s obvious. Much of the new material he showcased from Black Letter Days and The Devil’s Workshop, the two albums he released simultaneously this year, found him still reveling in the “Tex-Mex meets the Rolling Stones” vibe of his last album, Dog in the Sand. It’s a sound that suited Black well, much like his shiny head and dark, tieless suit. It helped that he has assembled a band up to the task of resurrecting Exile on Main Street swagger. His four-piece Catholics just plain rocked.

Fortunately, Black no longer feels compelled to live up to his image as a demigod of indie-rock weirdness. Still, he offered glimpses of his contagiously gleeful malevolence. The quirky “Jumping Beans” sizzled and sputtered in keeping with the song’s bounce-happy subject matter; “Black Rider” re-created Tom Waits’ gothic carnival ride; and Black spared no venom when he spat out “You are the son of a motherfucker” during “Nimrod’s Son.” By finding new ways to combine his innate darkness with his sun-drenched twang, Black kept his set interesting, even while testing the audience’s limited attention span with unheard-before material like the country ballad “Manitoba.”

—Kirsten Ferguson


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