LiveDC: Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik @ Birchmere
BYT at large | May 2, 2012 | 4:30PM |

All words: Marie Formica — All photos: Joy Asico

I was born in the 80s. I remember riding my Huffy bike in the summer, Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” pouring through the over-ear headphones hooked up to my FM equipped Walkman. I remember the song played on 95.1 WAYV in mom’s car during fall, winter and spring (it won a BMI award for most played song of that year). And I remember Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” playing a lot all the way to the end of that decade, although they were released in 1987. I still know “Tom’s Diner” by heart. I knew this would be a performance filled with sentimental memory.

It was nostalgic for the rest of the audience, too. Notable examples include attendee with a shock of bleached white-blonde hair, and another sporting a tight floral print that had long since lost its bloom. Duncan Sheik, though, was the most nostalgic of us all. His first song was from his 2011 album, “Covers 80’s” (as in Duncan Sheik covers 80’s). “Kyoto Song,” originally by The Cure, twinkled into being as two glockenspiels plucked out a melody. “Covers 80’s” is a collection of thoughtful, deconstructed versions of songs by artists like Tears for Fears, New Order and Depeche Mode.


Between melancholy songs, Sheik seemed caught up in the moment of being a famous songwriter, and the time after. “Such Reveries,” from a 2002 album, is about finding that “all of the awesome shit that happens to you in your life only exists in your dreams.” The lines and melody have a dreamy quality to them: “you and I in the room with the balcony / you lie on the bed while I stare at the sea … and we’re riding the ponies in Mexico / the moonlight leaps through the palm tree groves.” The chorus melody was bright and beautiful, accentuated by a soft splashed cymbal reminiscent of the gentle crash of ocean water.

Consistent with the days-gone-by feel of the performance, Sheik introduced the song “Half a Room” as a comment on “the halfness of things,” quickly telling of taking his then girlfriend to the “fancy art show” in Venice, whereupon he discovered his hotel room was an ordinary sized room cut in half to maximize guest capacity. He picked a lullaby-like tune on his guitar and sang of being left with “half my time,” “losing half my hopes, half of which are jokes anyway” and that “all my grand designs were victims of their times.” The piano occasionally played along with Sheik, warming the melody’s line.

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Sheik told the audience 1980s-era giants were his biggest influences. Turns out Suzanne Vega may be this kind of giant for Sheik. Vega revealed, later in the show, Sheik’s first Suzanne Vega track was “Left of Center,” famously on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack in 1981. By contrast, Sheik’s hit, “Barely Breathing,” was released in 1996. So, Sheik spent the last two weeks before this show touring with one of the biggest female artists of the 1980s. “She is an awesome, awesome lady,” he remarked at one point. Sheik chose another cover from his 2011 release, “Shout” by Tears for Fears.  “I know you listened to this song a lot in 1985, 6 and 7. That is what adults today did back then. I want you to sing along, and seriously, bring it.” And then, come the second chorus, there was Suzanne Vega marching onstage, wispy red bangs, long black blazer and all. She came on with mike in hand, singing with all of us, “Shout, shout, let it all out.” The audience went as nuts as a sitting audience, average age 45, can go.


Vega picked up a flat black hat, put her hand in it and popped out the tower. This was the top hat she wore through her first song, “Marlene on the Wall,” in a way tipping her metaphorical hat to the signature actual top hat of Marlene Dietrich. Employing her signature pretty vocal tone, she sang out powerful lines: “Other evidence has shown that you and I are still alone,” “the only soldier left here is me, I’m fighting things I cannot see, I think it’s called my destiny.” It’s amazing she can remember the number of words she has crammed into one line of the verse. Her guitar playing was layered with notes from an electric guitarist accompanying Vega.

She only asked us, “What would you like to hear? A love song, or some other thing?”  Someone asked for “That Other Thing,” and Vega acted surprised. “I was thinking ‘The Queen and the Soldier.’” Hearing cheers from the tables near the stage, she continued with the song. “The Queen and the Soldier” is an example of one of Vega’s favorite techniques, the narrative song. It is wordy, and the lines wrap up elegantly. It’s no wonder she’s been compared to Leonard Cohen. ‘The Queen and the Soldier’ is similar to “Suzanne” in the number of verses, the vocal technique and the devastating storyline. Vega sang it like it was the first time she’d ever sung it, “The soldier came knocking upon the queen’s door. He said, ‘I am not fighting for you anymore.’” The conclusion of the song is still as disturbing as it was on its release in 1985.

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It’s worth mentioning that Shiek and Vega came back together soon after this song with the full back up band (Vega on guitar and Sheik variously on guitar and harmonium–who knew?) to play a few songs from the musical they wrote together.  Wait, what? Yes, Sheik has already written the score for one musical in 2006, “Spring Awakening,” the songs from which are good but distinctly not musical-style.  Vega wrote a play, “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” and asked Sheik to compose the music. (Carson McCullers is the writer of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” among other works.) The result was a somewhat jocular, yet devoted, homage through many of McCullers’ experiences on moving to New York, other writers, and her lovers. Vega mentioned it was just recently nominated for an award for best music in a play. I can appreciate wanting to promote new work, and it was an interesting experience to watch two writers perform their own composition that is normally performed by others (although Vega has played Carson). That said it was a strange interruption to the stylistic flow of the show.


Vega and Sheik closed with their two most famous, radio friendly hits: “Tom’s Diner” and “Barely Breathing,” respectively. It was far from the focus of the show, almost an afterthought or an obligation, but they played dutifully. Sheik was accompanied by Vega, who harmonized with him on the sweet chorus melody and sang the second verse. Vega sang those famous “dah dah dah dahs” over the resonating electric guitar, the other highlight being a few bright strums from Duncan Sheik, and then a few tambourine shakes from Duncan Sheik.  At “the bells of the cathedral,” the guitarist picked out the time chime of church bells.  Although both have likely sung and played these songs dozens of times, they were just as touching and well received as fifteen and twenty years ago.

I can’t help but think we all breathed rarefied air there at the Birchmere. But is that a bad thing?

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