Rufus Wainwright stifles emotion, then lets it burst forth in Strathmore concert

Wainwright debuted risky material.
Wainwright debuted risky material. (Photo By Kyle Gustafson/for The)
By Dave McKenna
Monday, August 9, 2010

Rufus Wainwright has come up with a device that any performer can use to safely debut risky material: force the crowd to stay quiet. Before Wainwright's Saturday show at Strathmore, a stagehand announced that the first set would be a "song cycle" and that the audience should withhold applause until said cycle was completed to avoid disturbing the flow. Even Wainwright's exit for an intermission would be part of the story line and should be treated as such, according to these ad hoc ground rules.

Then Wainwright, 37, walked out from the wings wearing a black gown with a cathedral train, something Satan's bride might wear to the altar, sat at a grand piano and pounded out about an hour's worth of grandiloquent dirges from "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu," his latest CD.

Other than the costume, Wainwright didn't give anybody a reason to stifle giggles during the opening set. "All Days Are Nights" is a collection of downers, as Wainwright's first release since his mom, Kate McGarrigle of McGarrigle Sisters fame, died in January of cancer. "Martha" provided snippets of a family dealing with a crisis, and it came off as Tom Waits-meets-Liberace. "The Dream" had Wainwright reporting that "The dream has come and gone."

The gloom continued with "What Would I Ever Do With a Rose?" (which, despite the title, didn't reveal Wainwright as a fan of "The Bachelor"). "Never does the dream come true without the nightmare," he warbled. He banged on the keyboard to add some anger to the moroseness during "True Loves" (money line: "It's the true loves that make me want to cry").

The stage setting promoted funereality: There was never more than one spotlight shining toward Wainwright, and the big screen at the back stayed mostly dark, other than the occasional images of what appeared to be a lizard's eye, slowly blinking.

Whether folks in the big hall were suffering or swooning in silence as the new material was delivered is anybody's guess. Their respect for Wainwright was made blatant with their obedience: Only one person clapped during the "All Days" portion of the show and was quickly reminded of the required decorum.

But Wainwright's most obvious gifts, which went unused in the first half of the show, come in his ability to make listeners feel good. He performed a second set loaded with old favorites while dressed in an orange, floral print suit from some designer's Who Shot the Couch? Collection, and he generally behaved as the flamboyantly damaged sweetheart the fans came for. And after not saying so much as hello before intermission, he gave a rambling address about being taken with Washington's star system, since beautiful people get no bonus points and the local stars are all "old, rich white men."

"I'll get fat and move here!" he gushed.

"Memphis Skyline" was introduced as a tribute to the late Jeff Buckley, another member of the troubled-son-of-a-folksinger fraternity (Wainwright's father is Loudon Wainwright III, of "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" fame).

Sister and touring partner Martha Wainwright came to the stage to help deliver a crushing version of Leonard Cohen's over-covered "Hallelujah" (which Rufus sings very much as Buckley once did). It was reported this year that Wainwright decided to stop performing that tune because "Justin Timberlake sang it." The fans were thrilled to have it back in the set.

During his encore, Wainwright talked about the impact of his mother's death before playing "The Walking Song," a simple and sweet song she'd written in the 1970s about what friends might talk about while taking a stroll. As he finished, he wiped away tears and blew kisses. The crowd, no longer constrained by the show-no-emotion rule, went wild.

McKenna is a freelance writer.

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