Live Review: Rufus Wainwright at Napa’s Uptown Theatre

The singer-songwriter filled the venue with hope and good vibes on Saturday, April 1.

Credit: Matthew Welch

“It’s time to party!” Rufus Wainwright announced on Saturday, April 1 at his show at the Uptown Theatre in Napa.

The 43-year-old was sitting behind his glossy, black Steinway piano, and had just finished his opening number, “Beauty Mark” – a song written for his late mother that appears on his self-titled 1998 debut. The sentiment acted as a somewhat ironic segue into his second song, a track called “The Maker Makes,” which Wainwright wrote for the film Brokeback Mountain.

 

“That’s so me,” he remarked through punctuated chuckles as he stroked the melancholy introductory chords of the song. “I say, ‘It’s time to party,’ and then I go into a song like this,” he continued, coaxing a theater-wide snicker from the audience.

Since the late ‘90s, when he released his debut album, the American-Canadian singer-songwriter — who is the son of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle — has released a continuous stream of music. Following his debut, Wainwright moved from New York to Los Angeles and penned his sublime sophomore effort Poses. He swiftly followed that up with the double album Want, which explores themes of addiction, retrospection, and recovery, and was split into two releases that came out a year apart from one another. Release The Stars followed in 2007 – the first album that Wainwright self-produced – showcasing a more resilient and grandiose side of the artist. All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu saw Wainwright return to his roots, recording an entire album using only his voice and piano, a stark contrast from his 2012 Mark Ronson-produced pop album Out of the Game.

After the release of his greatest hits album in 2014, Wainwright returned in 2016 with an album consisting of Shakespearean sonnets adapted to musical form, called Take All My Loves. It was thought that this most recent album was to be the focus of the evening, but only one of the nine sonnets popped up during the course of the set. Honestly, the show felt less like a vehicle for promotion, and more like a victory lap for the fascinatingly eccentric and colorful musician.

I’ve seen Wainwright over 10 times since I first caught him at the 2004 Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. I’ve seen him in all sorts of venues, ranging from the ornate majesty of New York’s Beacon Theatre, to the glittery columns of Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel; from a stage at Coachella to the Mediterranean festival equivalent, Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival.

During a few appearances, the crowd was treated to a show featuring a full band, but often Wainwright plays alone. The band is a nice touch, but Wainwright commands such rapt attention and respect from his audiences with his artistry, talent, and unrelenting wit that even watching him perform solo feels like witnessing a philharmonic orchestra.

Throughout the set, Wainwright floated between his piano bench and the standing microphone at the center of the stage where he would serenade the audience as he strummed his guitar, barehanded, using only the edge of his fingertips to slam against the strings. He was dressed simply: a brownish-grey blazer obscuring a denim shirt, his sideburns taking on a distinguished hue of white that was slightly eclipsed by the boyish nature of his floppy brown hair that tossed and bounced with each strum of his guitar.

As he was alone (with no opener either), all eyes were on Wainwright regardless of where he was positioned. At his more central standing post, his guitar was slung across his body (though some technical difficulties in the beginning caused Mike, the roadie, to fit Wainwright with a different instrument, as Wainwright muttered blithe euphemisms over the microphone along the lines of “Stick it in there, Mike!”). From that position, he played tracks from albums as recent as Out of the Game (“Out of the Game,” “Jericho”) to older records like Poses (“California”) and his eponymous first album, from which he lifted the song “April Fools.”

 

“Well, I guess I have to play this one,” he said coyly of “April Fools,” because, after all, his show did fall on the first day of April. Guests were also treated to selections from the Want era (“Want”), as well as the penultimate track from Release the Stars, “Sanssouci.”

Wainwright’s strengths have always gravitated more toward piano-driven tunes, so it was no surprise that most of the evening was spent watching him tickle the ivories as he swayed his head back and forth, belting occasional vocal melodies into the microphone. Some older favorites popped up during the set, including “Matinee Idol,” “Dinner at Eight” (about his father, Loudon), and Want Two’s seminal ballad “The Art Teacher.”

In addition to the sole track he performed from Take All My Loves (“Sonnet 20”), two unfamiliar songs made their way into our eardrums: a cover of the late singer Lhasa’s “I’m Going In” and a new song entitled “The Sword of Damocles,” which has nothing to do with the Rocky Horror Picture Show song of the same name, but which draws together everything from ancient mythology to the late, great Carrie Fisher. Wainwright closed his main set after “The Sword of Damocles” by singing an a capella version of the closing number from Out of the Game – “Candles” (also about his mother) – before soaring into Poses opener “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.”

 

His two-part encore blew through his early track “Millbrook” before diving into the heavily anti-American (mostly anti-GOP) number, “Going to a Town.” Wainwright also performed his slightly jaunty cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for which he received thunderous, enthusiastic applause, taking a gracious bow before exiting once more.

He rejoined us for a second encore, proclaiming that he “had to end with one of [his] own songs,” and sat at the piano again to serenade the crowd with the titular track off Poses, which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful songs ever written. At its conclusion, he stood to bow again, as the audience launched into its third standing ovation of the evening. As he galloped toward the curtains for the final time, the house lights came on, and we all knew that our time with Wainwright was finally, sadly, over.

But one thing’s for sure: Wainwright is the king of bridges. Not only does he masterfully construct beautiful, spanning verses toward the end of his compositions (especially in the tragically ignored Want One track “I Don’t Know What It Is”), but he builds other kinds of bridges as well. He is the man I credit with breaking me out of my own personal shell, helping me to feel confident around my peers and urging me to embrace love in all its many forms. As he so simply, yet so eloquently offers in the lyrics of “April Fools”: “You will believe in love, and all that it’s supposed to be.” And I did, and still do.

After seeing him in Napa at the Uptown Theatre, I know that he’s not fooling around or faking it. It’s something that everyone in the audience tacitly agreed on, and that’s why we were there. We believe in something that is sometimes seemingly unattainable, though when Wainwright sings those words, he coaxes us out of our self-conscious headspace and bestows newfound hope in us. Somehow, everything just seems like it’s going to work out. And if that isn’t art, or if that isn’t beauty, I don’t know if I want to know what is.

 

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