SUZANNE VEGA/MARTYN JOSEPH St David’s Hall, Cardiff 29 June 2004

Local boy done good Martyn Joseph reveals himself to be a somewhat tougher proposition than a man who once released a single entitled “Dolphins Make Me Cry” might be expected to represent. Performing solo and acoustic – save for two closing songs on which he’s joined by members of Suzanne Vega’s band – his music is soaked in vitriol and indignation but seems to be smeared with a vagueness that slightly blunts its attack, whether he’s discussing prostitution or Bosnia, capping the obvious intensity he feeds into his performance. Though parochial numbers such as “Sunday Over Cardiff Bay” might sound rousing in this hometown venue (performing the song with a band for the first time, the overwhelmed author jumbles the words and – just like Bob Dylan in the latest “Bootleg Series” volume – begins the song again after being showered with corrections by the audience) they neatly, and perhaps cruelly, encapsulate just why Joseph isn’t yet a household name, 15 or more years into his career.

Tonight sticking closely to a greatest hits set template marked out by her recent “Retrospective” compilation, Suzanne Vega nevertheless makes good on an observation made during a 1987 interview when she admonished artists who made no comment on their songs for putting on performances that were no different to an evening spent at home listening to their records. Amongst other things that couldn’t be gleaned by spending some time in solitary confinement with her back catalogue we learn that the luxuriant “Gypsy” was written for a Liverpudlian lover she met whilst trying to teach Leonard Cohen songs to young girls whose idea of folk music leaned closer to “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane” whilst working as a summer camp tutor as a teenager, “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie Mae” was written as a feminist riposte to the Rod Stewart song and that “Solitaire” is about playing Solitaire on a computer late at night, no more, no less.

Her compact backing band (just guitar, bass and percussion; surprisingly no keyboards are used, although a sequenced rhythmic clatter is summoned up from somewhere on the few occasions it’s required) are equally adept at the slinky, sensual jazz of “Caramel” and the softened industrial of “Blood Makes Noise”. There are a few surprising covers as well, including a compelling, surprisingly successful version of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes”. Perhaps inevitably proceedings close on a singalong version of “Tom’s Diner”.

Despite suggestions from my companions that the evening was slightly undercut by the sequencing of the setlist, I felt the concert repaid my crash course cramming of Ms Vega’s catalogue (before the idea of attending was floated my collection of her albums petered out with 1987’s “Solitude Standing). She might not be the most animated of live performers, but she puts on a warmer, more good-natured evening’s entertainment that her sometimes inscrutable, slightly cold-blooded music might lead you to expect.