Sunday, June 9, 2013
Davies Symphony Hall
Better than: Dwelling on the crumbling notion of privacy in American life.
Rufus Wainwright is wearing a really awful suit. Standing, greeting the audience, the first concert-related thought into my head was that this thing was capital-b Bad. It looked like some thoughtless hipster had tried to make an ironic statement by wearing his Sunday best to a job painting houses. The front half of it (and the front half only) was speckled with different blobs of color. Who lets someone leave the house like that?
I open on this wardrobe malfunction for two reasons, none of which involve trying to be a snob fashionista. The few seconds I spent adjusting to Mr. Wainwright's choice of outfit was the only thing approaching a negative thought I had for the close to two hours he played.
But also, this choice of clothes is kind of what makes Rufus Wainwright awesome right?
Because despite Rufus Wainwright's blessed musical heritage and all of those precocious creative choices which have made it so tempting over the last 15 years to at least try and dismiss him as entitled and pretentious he still does what he pleases, bringing it all together with a little swagger, a splash of self-deprecating charm, and most importantly, staggering talent.
Wainwright is a commanding performer. It was a subdued evening at Davies Symphony Hall, a Sunday, an assorted collection of Rufus-acolytes and more serious-looking symphony types in attendance with nothing left to do before Monday but this. Through his little less than two-hour set and 20-plus songs, Wainwright tapped a well of genuine adoration and applause from this sleepy crowd. He alternated in bursts between the piano and the guitar, jerking his head as he hit the keys and strumming the guitar with a slightly tongue-in-cheek rock star strut. In this setting, with just your skills to amuse the masses, there's nowhere to hide. A lack of talent will be found out. He killed it.
The centerpiece is the voice. Wainwright's sings engagingly, with range and passion. His delivery seems to have become less nasal and more powerful with age. He uses the levels of emotion in his singing to work and drive his songs in turn sad, playful, bored, or wistful, but never anything less than extremely pleasing to the ear. One of his opening numbers, "This Love Affair," off 2004's Want Two, was a perfect example of this; the lingering carry of his delivery wrought every drop of sadness out of each line, a haunting amount of emotion bought forward by just one man.
The voice was a vessel through which songs spanning seven albums and 14 years became current. Wainwright's clear delivery accentuated his chorus-resistant and conversational lyrics, which rolled in turn over the quirky, baroque, chamber-pop he's become so known for.
It was a greatest-hits evening. Wainwright reached as far back as "Matinee Idol" off 1998's Rufus Wainwright and tore through several stripped-down cuts off last year's Out of the Game. He moved comfortably and seamlessly through his catalogue. He went back frequently to 2002's Poses, the album that launched him. He's still not above playing "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," a song he's probably been heckled to play more than a few times from his career. Whether it was a song off either of the Want albums or the quite morbid Songs for Lulu, Wainwright inhabited them all. It's the sort of commitment to the material that makes a refrain like "I'm so tired of America" off "Going to a Town" from Release the Stars seem like a new complaint and not a rehearsed concern.
If Wainwright's voice is the ace up his sleeve, his stage persona seals his place in the audience's hearts. His banter is no doubt thought-out and battle-tested across thousands of performances, but he sells his small asides and between-song anecdotes brilliantly. The talk is well chosen. A story about seeing protests and riots against gay marriage in France sets up Want Two's "Gay Messiah" perfectly. His Jeff Buckley yarn runs nicely into a rendition of "Hallelujah" that finds some fresh ground in one of the most tired songs of the 21st Century. That he's got such an instinctive feel for a good one-liner makes him all the easier to root for.
Sure, I could gripe about Wainwright's piano playing being considerably stronger than his guitar work, or how stripped of Mark Ronson's production, the Out of the Game songs seem a bit less essential, but what would be the point? Wainwright was more captivating on his own than most of today's new bands are as a unit. To focus on anything else would be ungrateful.
This was a show packed with well-to-do adults, nursing drinks over hushed conversations in the lobby bar before it was time to take their seats. There was little ruckus. The wildest that things got was when the guy serving at the snack shack tried to make small talk about the weather.