Friday, August 03, 2007

Rufus Wainwright (concert review and notes)

Not long after the intermission of his two and a half hour show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, a leder hosen-clad Rufus Wainwright was striking a Judy Garland pose, jaw out, arm bent and doing a tribute to her versions of Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and Noel Coward’s A Talent to Amuse. Wainwright may have one of the strongest voices in pop music. It’s clear, hauntingly resonant, and capable of a kind of brio that lets him pull off a Judy Garland tribute without any attempt to sing up in her register. So, here was a lanky man in greenish leder hosen and sequined vest, channeling Judy Garland to the accompaniment of a lone grand piano in front of a not quite sold out audience of middle-aged mostly heterosexually coupled white folk in the California wine country who simply listened and applauded. It was a breathtakingly transgressive moment. It looked like something out of the audition rounds of American Idol, yet Wainwright’s musical performance had no trace of drag show camp. There were no winks to the audience, no pretense to being a lookalike or move alike of Garland herself, etc. Wainwright was serious about the songs and the music for their own sake.

Moments later Rufus Wainwright was rocking out on guitar with his eight man backup band that included a three piece horn section and just before the Garland he was singing solo to his own piano accompaniment an almost techno-trance song, “I’m Leaving for Paris”.

Believe it or not, even well before this second act I was already convinced that Rufus Wainwright was the most eclectic musical performer I’d ever seen . He had opened his show in a peppermint-striped suit and silver jester shoes and sang, played guitar, accompanied himself on piano, with minimal breaks between songs for a set that included bits of Schubert, hints of Elton John (one of his patrons), a bunch of straight ahead rock and roll, occasional baroque touches, and political protest (“I’m Tired of You America” and a song about buckling bridges). At times, the music was loud,fast, and thick with guitar washes and French horn solos. At others it was bouncy and danceable, “Sans Souci”. From time to time, he would make clear that his love songs were written about men by a man, even when he was singing in character as a schoolgirl in a song about an affair with an art teacher. He then closed the first act of the show with the disco-inspired “Between My Legs" complete with special guest from the audience for some sort of youtube promotion.

While he certainly inherited his parents musical talent (he’s the son of Loudon Wainwright, a folk singer once compared to Dylan, and Kate McGarrigle, the possessor of one of the great harmony voices in folk), Rufus is the showman of the family. Somehow, in addition to being a sharp lyricist with a strong almost shameless feel for hooky refrains “Why’d You Have to Break All of My Heart” or "Nobody's Off the Hook", Wainwright revealed an operatic sense for building the drama in his stage act. The peppermint-striped straight-on opening set gave way to a second that included the Judy Garland, a tribute to 19th Century Irish Tenor John MCormick, and god knows what else until he sets up a false ending with his talented and flexible band each getting a solo then walking off the stage as they worked down from eight to a lone amplified banjo solo.

After a standing ovation, Wainwright reappeared in a white bathrobe for what turned out to be a planned five song encore. This started with inviting Sean Lennon and band, his warmup act, on stage to jam on Lennon’s father’s song “Across the Universe”. Lennon had studiously avoided any John and Yoko references during his own act. The spectacle of these two second generation performers who are both quite pointedly musically different from their parents (though Sean Lennon’s voice can sound hauntingly like John’s when he wants it to) doing a 60’s style on stage jam proved a touching emotional release. Rather than end there, Wainwright then moved to the piano to sing a ballad that segued into an Edith Piaf tribute sung in French. There was another false ending followed by Rufus donning earrings, high heels, then taking off the white bath robe to reveal thigh high stockings and full drag, for a full on Garland tribute complete with a corps of male backup dancers (I assume this was part of his all Judy Garland concert show done in New York a few months ago), “Get Happy”.

So let’s do the tally here. The guy has a great voice. He writes traditional lyrics about as well as anyone out there, subtle, fresh, yet strangely familiar. He’s musically well-informed and doesn’t try to hide it. He takes the drag show tradition and manages to make it feel perfectly normal. He’s got a relaxed patter (he’s sort of defiantly swishy) with a biting sense of humor when he does talk. He knows how to construct an act as a dramatic spectacle that goes beyond just playing music in front of a bunch of people. Can anyone else in pop music do all that?

Not too shocking, Wainwright hasn’t fully caught on in the US yet despite being named Rolling Stone’s best new artist back in 1998. His most recent album, Release the Stars, hit #2 in England. This tour is one more attempt to break him out in America which probably explains why the second song of his act was “I’m Tired of You America”.


Here’s the funny bit. A few months ago, my wife and I had watched the Leonard Cohen tribute concert movie, “I’m Your Man”, which featured large doses of Rufus Wainwright. Cohen and Wainwright both have Canadian roots. Both men also lived at the Chelsea Hotel for a long stretch of their lives. The wife loved the movie and Rufus. I had liked him fine as a straight on interpreter of Cohen’s music, but that was it. Anyway, we hadn’t been to a concert together in a long long time and the guy was in town. I didn’t even know that he was gay before we saw the concert last night. I was figuring that he was going to sit at the piano and sing troubadour-type folk songs. It’s nothing I would have thought to go to had it not been for my wife and my feeling that it was time to surprise her with a date-like evening. Once in a while, I guess it’s healthy to stretch your own musical boundaries.

Even more obscure. Years ago, I attended a boy’s boarding school in New England. When I was a tenth grader, they had a Saturday concert by upcoming folk singer Loudon Wainwright. It was one of those rare school events that wasn’t mandatory, so I didn’t have to go. It was maybe a year or two years before Rufus was born. Everyone else came out of the thing excited about some song about a dead skunk in the middle of the road. A couple years later at the same school, we had one of our rare dances (most of the schools were starting to go coed so the “mixer” thing was a dying concept). One of the hipper seniors was very excited to have gotten this hot band from Boston. The bus from the girls school never showed up. The band turned out to be Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, a bunch of super cool folk who dressed in black and were beyond hip. If you’re into rock history, the Modern Lovers were one of these prophetic groups who never got their due. They were punk, new wave, and had this strong Velvet Underground androgynous but sexual tinge, before any of those concepts had hit the mainstream.

There was nothing left to do but sit downstairs from the dining hall and listen to the Modern Lovers play a set. I sipped on cokes from cans while my schoolmates not so subtly took hits from joints and gulps from whiskey bottles to drown their sexual frustration which would have likely been just as frustrated had the girls school shown up. My schoolmates hated the Modern Lovers. Guys started shouting “Do you know any Allman brothers?” Richman responded, “We’re the Modern Lovers and we don’t do covers. We only do Modern Lovers music.”

I heard a few mutters of the three letter “F” word directed at Jonathan Richman. By the end of the evening the only one listening was the hip senior who had brought them to the school and the faculty chaperone. Personally, I had no idea what to make of the experience other than there were worlds of music I wasn’t ready for.

Thirty four years later, I’m at a concert featuring Loudon Wainwright’s son who is more influenced by the Modern Lovers and Jonathan Richman’s take on the eclectic troubadour tradition than Dylanesque folk singer. A lot of time has passed and my tastes and sensibilities have sure changed a lot. I’d say that’s a good thing.



At 8/03/2007 03:39:00 PM, Blogger Cup said...

I've been on the Rufus bandwagon since that first album. I have tix for the Atlanta show — in just 10 days — with opening act Neko Case — and I can't wait!!!! I've seen him twice, so I know it's going to be a great evening.

Excellent post.

At 8/03/2007 04:24:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for taking the time to read it. I hope you have a great time at the Rufus concert. I'm also a little worried that I spoiled some of the "drama" part of his show.
As I mentioned, I didn't really go there as a "fan", but much to my delight was really wowed. Happened to me twice before that I can remember....Dave Mason and Randy Newman. (in both cases, I just felt stupid for not having been a fan before)

At 8/04/2007 05:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you chancelucky- for a wonderful review on the incredibly talented Rufy.
I too,discovered Rufus when I saw him perform in the Leonard Cohen concert at the Sydney Opera House-(the one that was filmed for the doco)
Since then, I've travelled from Australia to New York, London and Paris to see him perform.
I'd really like to make that my occupation-for all the reasons that you've stated- if someone would pay me and my expenses.

He truly is a superb artist-composer-performer-and wit.

I never tire of reading about other people's enjoyment of his perfomances.

Thank you again for your wonderful review.

At 8/04/2007 09:16:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

many thanks for your comment. The Sydney Opera House Cohen concert must have been an even more satisfying event live than it was on film.
I don't think I would cross continents to see any artist, but I do understand why you've done it. Wainwright is both extravagantly talented and unique.

With the Australian thing, it does remind me that Wainwright also seems to have been influenced by Peter Allen who I think performed with the Rockettes once.

At 8/04/2007 05:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved Rufus in the Cohen film. It was the ease I think, the joy of performing, the not-fearing to give-out all the song requires. It's a rare gift this ease. So many performers seem like they're working too hard with little ability to calibrate -- a kind of ultraviolet to infrared metarhythm Rufus has I suppose you could say.

(If Australian Tommy Emmanuel comes your way to perform, do another date night. Not the vast showman of Rufus, nor as adorable, but maybe one of the several best guitarists ever on the planet. Something in the water in Australia presumably.)

At 8/04/2007 07:43:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Poglog,
I'll try to check out Tommy Emmanuel.
I'm surprised that so many people have seen "I'm Your Man", had no idea that you were one of them.
I suspect some of it comes from the fact that Rufus has been performing since he was a small child, but I think some people have a natural ease that they bring to whatever it they do.....kind of a druid thing :} probably.

At 8/07/2007 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Fantastic review Chancelucky. I of course must now bring things down a notch.

I do enjoy Rufus and think I'd need to see him live to appreciate him fully (with Neko Case Beth? Now that would be amazing!).

At times I find his voice a bit monotonous but I still really admire his artistry.

I enjoyed him in "I'm Your Man" but was so disappointed to hear him speak about Leonard Cohen lovingly and then stand there reading the lyrics like he'd never seen them before.

At 8/07/2007 04:48:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I think "monotonous" is a fair comment. He seems to favor a certain loudness level with his voice and stay there throughout the song. Vocal dynamics (control not loudness) and rhythm aren't necessarily his strong suits. It's still a great voice, he's a terrific writer, and may be an even better performer.

To be honest, I didn't notice him reading the lyrics pre-performance in the movie.

At 8/07/2007 05:01:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

It was during his performances that he was reading them. If he'd made an effort to hide the fact, I'd have forgiven all.

At 8/09/2007 01:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I almost went to this show instead of the one the next night in SF...

I saw RW when he opened for Tori Amos 6 years ago on her Strange Little Girls tour, and wasn't that overwhelmed by him.

Last Friday's show was so good I cried a little. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. :)

Ironic music story of my own: every time we would pass a dead skunk while driving, my dad would belt out the chorus of Dead Skunk, insisting it had been a very popular song in its day. I had no idea until this weekend that Dead Skunk is a song by... Loudon Wainwright.

At 8/09/2007 04:01:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for dropping by. I'm also something of a Tori Amos fan as well, one of the rare other acts that pulls me out of my generational musical niche :}. If it was 6 years ago, I think that's the middle of Rufus's drug and gay party phase. I suspect his performances might have been pretty uneven back then.

funny story about the dead skunk's just that it makes me feel really really old :}

Damn....I don't watch movies carefully enough I guess.

At 8/10/2007 03:43:00 PM, Blogger Teresa Hebron, Digital Metadata Librarian said...

I'm such a bozo-- I should've left you this link (my review of the show).

Yes, 6 years ago, RW was just on the verge of needing rehab, which I (unbelievably enough) did not actually know until last week. So, I can kind of forgive his being less than fabulous back then.

Tori's touring this fall for American Doll Posse... Just got my ticket to the Oakland show in December. I actually hesitated because I was afraid of being let down.

At 8/12/2007 10:54:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I enjoyed your "long view" review of Rufus Wainwright as well. Very intersting six year journey of yours to fandom. I would have left a comment there, but joining open diary wasn't exactly a simple thing.


Post a Comment

<< Home