Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright, Hammersmith Apollo, 30-10-07

I don’t know where to start.

I should preface the review by saying I’m currently pretty sick with some hideous flu type thing. I can’t stop sneezing, coughing and my chest is wheezing like a miner with emphysema. So, not really in the best of health to attend a concert, least of all one that is seated and contains tender torch songs. I had visions of coughing once too often and being booted out of the venue. I’d been to the doctors just before the gig, racing from work in south London to the doc near Camden back to Hammersmith for the show. I was turned around, feverish and confused. My doctor told me that I should use my inhaler as much as possible. I was unsure about this since I’d always been told you shouldn’t use it more than twice a day. He said it was fine, the worst that could happen was minor tremors. So I used it, a lot. Soon after, I started to shake. The painkillers and the inhaler didn’t get on well and I started to get dizzy and disoriented. This was just at the moment I arrived at the venue. What possessed me to sink half a joint I have no idea but it was a mistake! Why did I think that would improve the situation? Idiot.

My head started to swirl but I held it together to get to the loo, got some water and found my seat, feeling like I was going to pass out all the way. I needed rescuing and this gig was either going to make it worse or centre me and take me out of this misery.

In my state, as it turned out, this was the perfect gig to see. The air conditioning was on full blast and I was getting cold, which seemed to be stopping me from fainting or having to leave. I felt high and paranoid, it was not pleasant. The lights went out, a huge Stars and Stripes flag (with what looked like 13 Xmas baubles instead of 50 stars) and two mirror balls, at slightly different heights, descended from the ceiling and the band, dressed in similar pinstripe brightly coloured suits came on. I caught sight of Gerry Leonard, who I had seen at this venue five years earlier, except that time he was playing Heathen. He’s the most fascinating musician, sometimes you can’t even tell when or what he’s playing. He blends in but not in an unmemorable way. He makes the overall sound what it is, as both guitarist and musical director. It was a pleasure seeing him again. Out walked Rufus, dressed in white suit with vertical stripes and glistening accessories, crystals or diamante brooches all over his suit. Handsome devil, to be sure. The crowd, made up of middle class Londoners, the best gays (and their hags) that London has to offer and trendy students, cheered and wolf-whistled at him as the band struck up Release the Stars. And then this voice, this instrument, came from nowhere and filled the room. I had something to focus on and fixed my tired eyes to him and just let the voice wash over me. People I know who don’t get him say the voice is the problem. He’s hardly Dylan, in terms of being challenging to listen to these days, but I do understand. It’s an odd voice, there’s a monotone quality to it. But once you get it, it soars and sinks and hits big notes, high notes, low notes, all in perfect, flawless pitch. I’ve rarely heard a better live singer.

Later in the show he was playing some complex piano part in the song Tulsa and hit the wrong note, it sent his voice out of tune and in a split second he looked down, found the place his hands should be, and just carried on. No stopping, giggling or apologising. He made a mistake and fixed it. It happened once more where he sang a line then said “Ah, I’ll do that one again”, and did, carrying on til the end. In between songs I can’t underplay how charming, cheeky and funny he is. Filled with nervous energy, he loses track of his thoughts, rambles and tells daft stories.

The stories themselves are worth relating – he told us about a palace Frederick the Great built for men only that he insisted had all doors unlocked at all times. How he then built a room for Voltaire, which, unsurprisingly, was never visited. He came out for the second half dressed in lederhosen, which he was keen to tell us were Austrian, not German. He’d bought them from the same place the von Trapp family had. He told us his boyfriend was back home in Germany and how German Rolling Stone had done an article about the top 10 rock stars and their muses. “Number one was John Lennon and that woman, what’s she called… Yoko, that’s it. Then Mick and Marianne. And at number 9, yes, Rufus Wainwright and Jörn Weisbrodt!”. Then there was the song dedicated to Brandon Flowers, “Hugely talented, incredibly handsome and hopelessly heterosexual!” The banter between the songs is such a part of the whole but never detracts from the sumptuous and sensitive music. I knew almost all the songs but my highlights were the amazing ode to lost love The Art Teacher and Poses.

Having sadly missed him doing the ‘Judy show’ at the Palladium in February I didn’t imagine I’d get any covers from it. Happily, I was wrong. If Love Were All followed a tender version of A Foggy Day in London Town. When I saw Morrissey at the Palladium 18 months ago, where Judy sang in 1963, two years after her Carnegie show, he walked on stage, tuxedo-clad and sang, “But I believe that since my life began, the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse” before bursting into Panic. The song was familiar but only when I listened to my Judy at Carnegie CD (the greatest live show ever recorded, no joke) and heard her sing those lines did I realise it was the Noel Coward penned If Love Were All. Hearing Rufus sing it in entirety almost brought a tear. Very slowly, my asthma inhaler inspired tremors started to wear off. Only a little, I still felt like I was on some other planet until I got home. I can’t forget about the rendition of Between My Legs though. He has been running a competition online where people submit You Tube footage of themselves doing the spoken word section of the song. The winner is invited on stage each night to perform it. Last night it was a super excited clone-y shaven headed guy in jeans and checked shirt. He delivered his lines, to great cheers, like an overacting Shakespearian actor wannabe. Brilliant.

After the two Judy songs I was even more delighted to get the dragged up Get Happy. He came out for the encore in a bathrobe and I’d seen this before. He did it at Glasto, minus the dress up routine. But this time he perched on a chair and put on clip on earrings, heels and lipstick, slowly and dramatically, smiling, before miming to his own version of Get Happy while the band danced around him. Judy-loving gays aside, I wonder who realised what he was re-creating? I read a description of it in Q magazine a couple of months ago – they described it as him wearing ‘a Liza Minnelli style Cabaret outfit’. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to find out what the outfit really was, a perfectly choreographed recreation of Judy performing the song in Summer Stock. Not remotely like Cabaret. It was tremendous fun and was greeted with a standing ovation. Still in Judy drag, he performed the silly and charming Gay Messiah and he was off. I’m going again tonight and, it being Halloween, I don’t know quite what to expect. It’s taken me a few albums to get there but now I get it. So here I sit, at home, sneezing and coughing, but nothing will stop me from getting back to Hammersmith tonight.

Release the Stars
Going to a Town
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
The Art Teacher
The Consort
I Don’t Know What It Is
A Foggy Day in London Town
If Love Were All
Between My Legs
14th Street
Macushla (sung with brass only and no microphone)
Beautiful Child
Get Happy
Gay Messiah

Rufus Wainwright, Radio City Music Hall, New York, 15-02-08

Being in New York is a pleasure, I don't need an excuse to come - I've done it for a gig before but mostly I just love being here. Rufus doesn't feel like a New Yorker in many ways - he grew up in Montreal and his mum is Canadian - but he does live here so it was somewhat of a homecoming and the last band show of the tour. In barely a month he's off again, doing solo shows all over the place, but this felt like a full stop on the Release the Stars tour. He's just been to Australia, New Zealand and, before that, Japan. He played the Wiltern in LA on Tuesday. And yet here he was, energy level sky high, at Radio City - one of the most visually stunning venues I've ever visited. A huge old-fashioned theatre, it doesn't lend itself to pop concerts but the warm atmosphere made the difference. The audience was very mixed - I saw parents with children, senior citizens, screaming fangirls, couples of all kinds, a good smattering of top shelf celebrities (Lou Reed, Yoko, Gloria Steinem, Alan Cumming, Vincent Gallo and probably more I missed) and just about half the gay men in New York. I sense that some are fans of him and not his music, they're charmed by the personality and probably don't know all the songs. But most know every song, myself included now. When I saw him in October at Hammersmith I knew only a few songs and now they're like old friends.

I took my seat, 20 feet or so from the stage, and watched the place fill up with New York's trendiest. On came Sean Lennon. I enjoyed his set, he's an excellent guitarist and there's a gentle, ethereal quality to his music but I can't say I'd buy it. He's got more talent than I thought he did and his nervous, shy stage patter works well, to a point, but I couldn't say he impressed me hugely. His most stunning impact is that of a visual one, given his remarkable resemblance to his father. I suspected I might see him again later in the evening. A short break and just before 9pm the curtain went up and the familiar stage set had appeared - black and white Stars and Stripes flag, with brooches, two mirror balls and place on stage for 7 musicians. On they came, opening with title track Release The Stars. A roar went up as he walked on, wearing the loudest, actually luminous, yellow and black suit jacket and trousers, covered in brooches. The band were wearing similar, but not yellow, suits and brooches too. The show has become familiar but it's still very fresh and the songs filled the huge expanse of the venue, with its two mezzanine balconies, easily. Four RTS songs later and everyone was settled, he'd cracked a few jokes ('There should be a countdown machine in Times Square telling us how many moments to go til Bush is outta here!') and I loved every minute of it. Seeing him live is a singular experience. After a year of touring, worldwide, and gigs most days I was amazed at his energy level and his flawless voice. Not a note out of place, every big note high and strong, but with great tenderness on the quieter songs. The emotional quality to his voice is unlike anything I've heard before. I've never been in the presence of an artist who can make you weep with a song then laugh until you hurt with a bit of between song banter. Usually I get to artists when they're dead or ancient, or just starting. This time I've jumped in 5 albums in when he's hit his creative stride and is approaching his mid 30s. That's some impeccable, accidental, timing. He told us about a new annual environmental venture he's doing BlackOutSabbath, where the idea is for everyone to just switch off their appliances, heating, everything that needs electricity, for 12 hours in June.

Before the customary interval we had the last fan participation edition of RTS song Between My Legs. A fan, who sent in a video via You Tube, will take the spoken word bit at the end. Though moving stiffly and looking nervous before his bit, the guy who was up there came to life when the moment required it and delivered the lines like a Shakespearian actor. So far, so regular, but still thrilling, show. Second half began with the amazing, complex, Do I Disappoint You and some, what you might call, hits - Beautiful Child and two songs from his Judy show. During my favourite RTS song, Slideshow, we got, at the punch moment of brass coming in, two sets of pyrotechnics, which was a surprise and a visual treat. He hoped we liked them and they didn't look too ridiculous. After that it was a brave move to try Macushla, the Irish folk song, without a microphone. I'd seen him do it, with great success, in London but this was a venue twice as large. I was close but his voice went right past me to the back, if not to the balconies probably. A rousing, loud and hugely well-received 14th Street, about New York of course, closed the main show out. I was starting to get a bit sad that this was about to be over and it'll be goodness knows how long before I can see him live again. Fortunately, the encore was a complete blast and sent me off with a bounce in my step and a grin on my face that still sits there.

Out he came in bathrobe, to huge cheers, and, as I expected, on came Sean. They performed Across the Universe, as they had done so on that same stage a mere three weeks after 9/11 for a Lennon tribute show, and it was... I'm speechless. As a Beatles fan, it's hard for me to top that. A bearded Sean, playing guitar, with Rufus and not only him from family McGarrigle-Wainwright either - he brought out mum Kate and sister Martha to sing back-ups on it too. Unforgettable highlight. Then a folk song with just Rufus, Martha and Kate on guitar - Meducino, a song about New York state. The finale was approaching. He sat on the chair at stage front and got into drag before our eyes - as people howled, wolf-whistled and he winked flirtatiously at all and sundry. Earrings, lipstick and heels on and off we went into a mimed Get Happy. The band were joined by Kate and Martha in their ramshackle but, you could see, enjoyed choreography and all were dressed, not in tuxes as usual, but as nuns! It brought the house down. Then, finally, Gay Messiah. And he was covered with silly string from the band by the end as Gerry Leonard's daughter, around two years old and dressed in fairy wings and ear-protecting headphones, was hoiste up by her dad. The band took their bow as a rain of white pyrotechnic sparks rained down from the ceiling. A standing ovation and he dragged boyfriend Jorn up there for a bow and Valentine's kiss. His last act before leaving the stage, after a filthy joke about the silly string, was to slip over on the mountains of string, regain his balance, with Jorn's help, and bound offstage with applause ringing in his ears. I honestly can't remember *ever* having so much fun at a concert before. Just pure fun. I've had sombre, happy, thrilling, emotional, joyous, profound experiences at gigs. I've been squashed up against strangers more times than I can remember. But seeing Rufus is just tremendous fun.

Rufus Wainwright, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 13-04-10

The lights sank and plunged the theatre into darkness. A man was brought into view, stage left and backlit in silhouette. Dressed all in black with a collar ruffle of feathers, he walked silently toward the grand piano at a glacial pace. He sat and played his new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, in entirety without pause or, as instructed by the announcer, a sound from the audience. Allowing this song cycle to run without interruption, filling the room with arpeggios, created a perhaps expected atmosphere. It was mourning. Rufus Wainwright, bowed by grief over the recent loss of his mother, played carefully and remained poised despite obvious nervousness.

The stage stayed dark, save for a single spotlight over him. Flanked by scenery from his own opera, Prima Donna, playing currently, he weaved melodies from his own hand, Shakespeare’s sonnets and a French libretto. A ten-foot coat train draped behind him stretching half way across the stage, as the visuals of Douglas Gordon gently unfurled on a cinema size screen. Known for his Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait film, a real-time study of the graceful, balletic Frenchman playing for Real Madrid, he took film of Rufus’s eye, clad in make-up, black oils and a silver tipped false eyelash, and played the footage back in slow motion as the large eye, or several smaller ones, opened and closed. At the surprising end of his Zidane film, the master fights his way into a red card. As Rufus played the last song, Zebulon, a tale of an imaginary childhood friend returning to witness adulthood, a bulbous tear collected in the on screen eye and slowly made its journey, as tears do. I wiped my own tear, not for the last time in the evening, and took pause as he again slowly walked off as the curtain fell and the applause was finally allowed to rise. With a wonderful absurdity and a theatrical pretentiousness that somehow didn’t feel unwelcome, it was quite simply one of the finest and most moving performances I have seen.

Recorded a month before Kate McGarrigle’s death in January, All Days Are Nights has inevitably taken on the role of songs mourning the end before it came. That he gets out there and plays these songs feels like part of the recovery process, with emotions open and raw. That’s always been the way in his family, gladly beholden to their folk tradition. Intimate feelings are poured into songs, be they complimentary or vicious. The song Martha exhorts his sister to take over the matriarch role, as something she must do, hers to make in her own image. Dinner At Eight, performed in the second half, is a devastating, sad tale of child abandonment and plea for remorse directed at their father Loudon. Now Kate has gone the healing of parental relations seems to have begun, with that song the last, you hope, of the most brutal of judgements.

Coming out for the second half rather more modestly dressed, Rufus was visibly relaxed, performing songs of great beauty – The Art Teacher, Poses, Vibrate – for the assembled crowd. Always a bundle of nervous energy he riffed on the noticeable blue plaques in London, given to notable residents: “I need one of those… or a statue maybe!” He is a curious mix of extreme show-off and goofy joker, welcomed with great affection by his audience.

Taking two encores, the setlist spanning all of his recorded work, he warned us that what was coming, The Walking Song, was by his mother and an example of her being the most talented of the family. It was beautiful and, since he has elected to perform it nightly, it brought the outcome one might expect: he made it almost to the end without breaking down but upon singing “We’ll talk blood and how we were bred, talk about the folks both living and dead” he could hold onto his concentration no longer and, with cracking voice, it rumbled to a quick halt. He stood, wiped tears from his face, and took a bow. One final note of brightness, the first song from his first album, Foolish Love, ended the proceedings.

He pushes himself harder than ever at a time when he’s most vulnerable, inviting us to intrude on his grief. Public mourning is very often painful to witness, and it was, but one could not turn down the invitation of going on the journey.

Who Are You New York?
Sad with What I Have
Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now!
True Loves
Sonnet 43
Sonnet 20
Sonnet 10
The Dream
What Would I Ever Do with a Rose?

Les Feux D'Artifice T'Appellent
Beauty Mark
Grey Gardens
Matinee Idol
Memphis Skyline
The Art Teacher
Little Sister
Dinner At Eight
Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk
Going To A Town
The Walking Song
Foolish Love