Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Music: Rufus Wainwright

Perth Concert Hall
October 18, 2010

The Boy Stripped Bare
Rufus Wainwright has lived his life in the spotlight since his arrival back in 1973 was announced by his famous dad, Loudon, in songs like Dilated to Meet You, and the (as it turned out) ironically titled Rufus is a Tit Man.
The famous baby has grown into a famous man, and a prodigious talent.
He came to Perth on Monday night in the midst of a period of great personal highs and lows: the international popularity of his re-creations of Judy Garland's legendary 1961 concerts, the debut of his opera, Prima Donna, and his growing celebrity, all overshadowed by the illness and death, in January this year, of his beloved mother, the tender, luminous singer and songwriter, Kate McGarrigle.
In the first part of his Perth Concert Hall solo show, Wainwright performed the whole of his recent album, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu, as a song cycle (“no applause until Rufus has left the stage, please”).
It's a format that has worked well for other ambitious artists, in particular Brian Wilson on his Pet Sounds and Smile tours, and it certainly satisfied this adoring audience.
Songs for Lulu is demanding music, and Wainwright played it for all it was worth.
He was dressed in an operatic cape with a five-metre train and backed by gigantic close-up images of an eye, opening, closing and, eventually dropping a single, enormous tear.
Pausing from the keyboard only to sip water, he worked through songs of deep loss, love, freedom and family, and when they worked (“Martha”, the glorious, spare “Zebulon”) it was a transfixing experience.
Sometimes, though, it was not so successful, in particular his awkward arrangement of Shakespeare’s 43rd, 20th and 10th sonnets, and then, stripped of an orchestral backing or his playful starriness, you have to confront The Rufus Wainwright Issue: that voice of his.
When he performed Garland’s repertoire, his vocal limitations were part of the fun (“I can’t reach these notes, but we’ll all have fun watching me try!”), but in this setting, and though everything was well within his range, that voice, like a chainsaw wrapped in felt, could really throw you.
It was a lot easier to take in the second half, when beautifully crafted songs like Beauty Mark, Memphis Skyline (his lovely tribute to Jeff Buckley), The Art Teacher, Cigarettes and Chocolate and, finally, his mother’s sweet and touching Walking Song, swept the audience away.
No song swept more thoroughly, though, than his version of that strange re-telling of Old Testament stories and perverse sexual longings by an ascetic, mordant Jewish Canadian Buddhist poet that has become the crowd-pleasing showstopper par excellence for artists as varied as John Cale, k.d. lang, Jeff Buckley, Wainwright and every second American Idol contestant. Dear God, will no one ever rescue Leonard Cohen from Hallelujah?

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 20.10.10 look 

Set list: If you haven't come across it yet, gives you the running sheet and links to videos of artists' shows; this one is from Rufus Wainwright's concert in Osaka only a fortnight or so ago setlist here. It's not identical to his Perth show, but pretty close. Check it out! 

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