Suzanne Vega was far from commanding Tuesday night at the Coach House, but she put forward some thought-provoking paradoxes and delivered them in sufficiently varied musical wrappings to at least keep things interesting.
The central paradox was Vega herself. The New York City songwriter, author of four albums of artful, literate pop with occasional folk underpinnings, is no natural performer. Instead, she is a reticent soul driven by a contradictory need for self-expression--a recurring theme in her music.
Vega, who plays tonight at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, hinted at that contradiction from the start in the first of her two shows Tuesday at the Coach House (a third performance at the San Juan Capistrano club was scheduled for Wednesday).
She opened with "Fat Man and Dancing Girl," in which the protagonist, an ill-at-ease showgirl, is seen in the throes of stage fright verging on horror.
Then, in one of the concert's most assertive moments, Vega mustered all the defiance her thin, austere, circumscribed voice could hold and spat out "Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)," a declaration of a self demanding to be reckoned with, insisting, even threatening violence, lest she be ignored or dismissed.
Those songs, like many in the set, were dominated by the clanking, percussive rhythms that mark Vega's current album, "99.9 F."
Generated mainly by Steve Gaboury's sampling keyboard, they lent a sense of innovation and hammering intensity to the new songs--maybe too much intensity for Vega, whose voice sometimes had trouble competing with a four-man band that was under control but seldom delicate. The approach made for some good, dense, edgy rock moments, proving that "folk singer" is now an outmoded label for Vega.
"When Heroes Go Down" held some of the brashness of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, even if Vega is hardly a qualified vocal stand-in for Costello. She and her band touched on the same source during the furtively rocking "Left of Center," as Gaboury, the newest member in a veteran backing crew, took off on a dissonant piano ramble that echoed the fractured noir mood of Costello's "Watching the Detectives."
Vega's band was able to hit with a lean, churning Velvet Underground-like punch ("Men in a War"), or to summon swirling carnival atmospherics that recalled the Band ("As a Child").
"In Liverpool" went for Beatlesque grandeur that owed a debt to the "Abbey Road" suite: Toward the end, one almost expected a chorus to chime in with "1,2,3,4,5,6,7, all good children go to heaven."
Toss in some solo folkie moments from Vega, including the fragile, yearning "Gypsy," and the concluding romantic parable, "The Queen and the Soldier," and you had a show that shoe-horned more than enough variety into 75 minutes.
Vega honored some show-biz conventions. She held a rather tame and subdued rendition of "Luka," her biggest hit, as a trump to be played near the end.
She encored with "Tom's Diner," the a cappella song that was turned into an unlikely techno-pop hit in a remixed version by a British duo, DNA. The audience joined in with a lighthearted sing-along and clap-along, an unbidden response that pleased the singer.
But Vega is no conventional show-biz trouper.
Her anxiety about performance pervaded the show. When she greeted the crowd, it was with a nervous giggle. One of the first things she said was, "You are shy--don't be," which made one wonder whether she was making an observation about the audience, or talking to herself.
She then started talking about the weather, a sure sign of a shy person trying nervously to break the ice.
Vega chatted sparingly. But noting that "If I don't talk about my life, people get the wrong idea," she spun a humorous, self-deprecatory tale about how her own bookishness and lack of street-smarts helped her get out of a jam during her east Harlem childhood.
The singer's conflicting tendencies--reticence and revelation--kept surfacing in her songs. Should she hide behind a facade and follow her inclination to play the detached observer of "Left of Center" and "Marlena on the Wall"? Or should she give herself over to the open declaration of feeling seen in "Gypsy" and "Luka"?
A more expansive performer might have amplified these contradictions and played them out for dramatic effect. The restraint in Vega's bearing, and the matching chill and distance in her voice, meant that they would remain themes to be read between the lines, rather than painted broadly.
It's an approach that's subtle and intelligent, but it didn't make for the kind of show to grab and shake and draw one in.
Vega's A & M label-mates, Kitchens of Distinction, opened with a half-hour set given to full-blown romantic passions. These were played out against a big-screen wash of whooshes and tidal crashing, courtesy of guitarist Julian Swales and his multiplicity of electronic effects.