As musical descriptors, cool or hot apply to singer/songwriters as well as to jazz. Cool songstress Suzanne Vega and hot, bluesy Marc Cohn are touring together this summer, and they brought their show to the Rialto for an evening that was, by turns, intensely cool and desperately hot--but engaging, though in different ways.
Despite divergent styles, Vega and Cohn share similarities. Both are best known for signature songs. Neither is a one-hit wonder, however, having each established strong credentials for well-crafted songwriting. Both are loosely considered folk singers, since their music can be successfully stripped down to one instrument and a voice. Despite a lack of airplay, both bring their own fervent, almost cult-like fans.
Suzanne Vega opened with "Marlene on the Wall" from her 1985 self-titled debut, followed by "Small Blue Thing" from the same album. The mellow, bell-like tone of her guitar was complemented by her longtime bassist, Mike Visceglia. Vega's set highlighted her insightful but emotionally distanced observations and quirky singsongy melodies on tunes such as "Solitaire" and "I'll Never Be Your Maggie May" from her most recent work, 2001's Songs in Red and Gray.
Her cool, New York-folk cabaret style was by turns introspective and funky. "Blood Makes Noise" from 1992's 99.9F° became a rap underpinned by just a bass line. "Tom's Diner" was served a cappella with audience participation. "Luka," the 1987 song that has defined Vega as the articulate, though likely unintentional spokesperson for physically abused children, was the obvious encore.
Marc Cohn--who was shot in the head, but not seriously injured, on Sunday (five days after this show) during a Denver robbery attempt--opened with a version of Gershwin's "Summertime" that highlighted his vocal chops. The 1991 Grammy winner for Best New Artist, thanks to his engaging geo-historical narrative, "Walking in Memphis," Cohn has released only three albums in nearly 15 years. Compared to Vega's wry intellectualism, Cohn's songs and delivery verged on emotional meltdown.
Backed by a three-piece band that included his longtime guitarist, Shane Fontayne, recently returned from a tour with Sting, Cohn's music had a hard, bar-band edge. Songs like "Paper Walls" simply rocked, while emotionally charged journeys like "She's Becoming Gold" (both from 1993's The Rainy Season) were shimmering and cathartic. The die-hard Vega fans who left at intermission missed the best part of the show, as Cohn went on to be called back for two well-deserved encores.