Rufus Wainwright at the Concert Hall
Queensland Performing Arts Complex
Wednesday, 12 September 2012.
Curiously enough, tonight’s long-awaited, much-anticipated Rufus Wainwright show begins not with the man himself but with, rather uncharacteristically, for concerts nowadays, two opening sets from support acts he hand-picked especially for his first Australian tour since 2010.
The incomparable US-born, Paris-based Krystle Warren, who is quite rightly slowly but steadily beginning to build a reputation as one the most talented songstresses of her time, took to the stage first.
Dressed in a simple black ensemble and carrying her acoustic guitar, she played an all-too-short 20-minute set that was so spellbindingly arresting it sent many out to the foyer to procure a copy of her latest CD, Love Songs: A Time You May Embrace, the moment she left the stage.
Former Brisbane girl Megan Washington followed with a solo set that saw her seated behind her keyboard, performing a short set that was a mix of original material, the highlight of which was probably a dark, noir-like rendition of ‘How To Tame Lions’ and a mutedly beautiful cover of Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Shivers.’
Her voice was in fine enough form and the stripped back, unadorned nature of the acoustic setting allowed both her voice and her songwriting skills to shine, though ‘Shivers’ showed that the song obviously hits a raw, bruised place within her, so much so that it allowed her to tap into something incredibly vulnerable and, in doing so, showcase the range of her voice before quietly leaving the stage.
After a 20 minute intermission, Wainwright wandered out, in near darkness, and launched into a searing rendition of ‘Candles,’ a song written about the death of his beloved mother and revered folk maven Kate McGarrigle.
It began acoustically, with nothing but Wainwright and his stunning tenor, singing acapella, his figure barely discernible in the pale light cast by the candles dotted around the stage, and built into something altogether more soaring and majestic as his band joined one-by-one him onstage.
From there, Wainwright was rarely alone onstage and he proved himself to be, as others who have had the pleasure of seeing him live before will attest, incredibly generous in sharing the space with the two backing singers, Warren and Charisse Goodwin, and small band.
Indeed, there was never the sense that Wainwright was the ‘star’ or the dominant force, merely supported by his backing players and singers. Instead, there was a feeling of synergistic energy and musical simpatico that revealed how well they all worked together, each compliment the other rather than individually jostling for prominence or individual attention.
When Wainwright last toured Australia in 2010, he was a man in the depths of mourning. He had just written All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, an album he described, in an interview with SameSame last month, as his “obligatory dark night of the soul record.”
And it was true: though Wainwright’s 2010 Australian tour divided his shows into two very distinct halves, the first of which consisted of songs from that album.
It was an extended requiem of sorts, for which he donned a funereal cape-dress with a train that trailed behind him for several metres, and it was also accompanied by a request that the audience not clap until he had left the stage.
Clad in the very suit he wore to marry his long-time partner mere weeks ago – “because this thing cost a fortune and I have to get more than just one wear out of it.”
Though the second set consisted of songs plucked from his back-catalogue, it was clear that, at heart, he was a man still very much grieving the recent death of his beloved mother.
His performance was, as ever, impassioned and impeccable, but it was also a process that very obviously took its toll. After all, mourning is hard enough without having to do so while conducting a very public career that leaves little wiggle room for the unpredictability of just how hard or how unexpectedly grief can consume one.
This time around, much has changed in Wainwright’s life, though the spirit of his mother remains a great presence in his world, both on record and onstage during his live performances.
Tonight, for example, Wainwright not only opens with a song he wrote following her death, but later speaks briefly about a recently filmed documentary and performance tribute to her, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You.
Filmed at New York’s Manhattan Town Hall Theatre, the show featured performances from Wainwright himself, sister, Martha, and close family friend Emmylou Harris, among others.
Tonight, two of the singers who performed at that same show also happened to be touring Australia with Wainwright and stepped up to perform their own tributes to McGarrigle.
Wainwright’s musical contemporary and long-time personal friend, British singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson, the son of folk-rock legends Linda and Richard Thompson, delivered a stark, unadorned take on McGarrigle’s ‘Saratoga Summer Song.’
Thompson is also doing double-duty as one of two opening acts at some of Wainwright’s remaining Australian dates, so count yourself lucky, should you be heading along to those shows, because Thompson is himself a fine singer/songwriter with a great voice.
Krystle Warren’s bare-bones interpretation of McGarrigle’s ‘I Don’t Know’ is everything her opening set was and more: singular, arresting, emotional and then some. Together, the two performances were the very definition of quietly showstopping: so raw and vulnerable, yet so beautiful and undeniably powerful.
Those emotions, too, pervaded Wainwright’s own ironic, slightly biting take on one of his father’s songs. Having paid tribute to his mother, he sardonically joked, “I suppose I better play one of my dad’s songs now” before launching into a rendition of Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘One Man Guy.’
Of course, irony and biting humour aren’t something to which the younger Wainwright is immune, as he amply demonstrated while singing the arch ‘Rashida,’ a song that sardonically, sarcastically laments being kicked from the guest-list of a party for, one presumes, someone more famous.
Much of the evening’s setlist was drawn from Wainwright’s most recent album, the Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game. Traversing the vaguely Southern Californian 1970s pop vibe that permeates much of the album, he was in brilliant voice.
His richly emotive tenor proved equally adept at belting out cruisy pop numbers like ‘Barbara’ and ‘14th Street’ as well as fully enveloping and highlighting the nuances and intricacies of songs like ‘Perfect Man,’ written for his husband, and the ‘Respectable Dive,’ a tune with a vague, almost alt-country feel to it.
We were also treated to a handful of songs from his back catalogue, among them crowd favourites ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ and ‘April Fools,’ both of which saw Wainwright briefly put down his acoustic guitar and take command of the piano, the instrument with which he is most often associated.
One of the night’s undisputed highlights was the back-to-back performance of two of his finest piano-based ballads, ‘The Art Teacher’ and ‘Going to a Town.’
Simultaneously beautiful and heart wrenching, the rhapsodic ‘The Art Teacher’ is a ballad par excellence, a song of tenderness, deep sadness and enduring nostalgia, suffused with marrow-deep regret and longing.
Sung from the perspective of a wealthy, married but desperately unhappy middle-aged woman remembering her high school art teacher, it’s the sort of song Wainwright does best: baroque-pop, operatic inspired melodies with complicated, engrossing lyrical narratives.