London, Sunday April 21, 2019
What’s left to say about Rufus Wainwright? The American-Canadian musical wunderkind who was more or less destined to have a career as a troubadour, ‘always travelling, but not in love’, singing about heartbreaks and headaches, forever bemoaning he never became a proper superstar, yet firmly remaining a critics’ darling, and selling out some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, working with musical legends and getting to make the musical projects he wants to make. Could Rufus Wainwright be the most privileged person on the planet? He’s definitely a contender. But he’s also really good.
Rufus is backed by a brilliant group of musicians, Paul Bryan (Bass), long time collaborator Gerry Leonard (Music Director and Guitar), Jamie Edwards (Keyboards), Matt Johnson (drums) and Rachel Eckroth (Guitar, Piano, Backing Vocals), who’s also tonight’s support act, with a half hour set of lovely songs about a time in her life where a father had died, she’d lost her job and was moving from New York to Los Angeles. The result being a selection of songs that are beautiful and atmospheric – and some of which sound a little bit like Lana Del Rey (not a bad thing in my opinion).
The rambling, disorganised charm of Wainwright’s younger years has long since been replaced by a more professional demeanour, but he hasn’t lost his ability to tell entertaining anecdotes that add to the enjoyment of the Rufus Wainwright live experience.
Not that he needs to entertain in between the songs; his singing is quite frankly outrageous. Blessed with a pair of pipes that can really belt out a song, but also the awareness to tone it down when needed, really makes Wainwright a compelling singer. His piano playing is great, his guitar strumming is passable, and if he still messes up a song here and there (which he used to) it certainly didn’t happen tonight at Royal Albert Hall, where Wainwright and his band played what sounded like a flawless set of 20 of his songs from his two first records, one from his fifth record, three cover songs and one new song.
Wainwright is his usual chatty self in the first set. One of several anecdotes is about Leonard Cohen (does he ever not tell an anecdote about Cohen?), and how he never knew whether Cohen, though always supportive, actually liked his music or not. The closest Rufus can get to guess if the ‘mysterious’ Leonard appreciated his songwriting is that Cohen apparently loved the song, Sally Ann, so much that he listened to it constantly for two days when the record came out. Though Wainwright can pull off being full of himself by shooting us a self-deprecating comment, you always get the sense that the self-deprecation is mainly a knowing part of the act of pretending to be less bigheaded than we all know he really is. But he can back it up by his talent, and when he sings a beautiful Sally Ann (one of my favourites), one can see why Leonard Cohen might indeed have loved this song.
Another highlight is the wonderful Barcelona (‘Crazy me don’t think there’s pain, in Barcelona…’), with Rufus suavely sitting on a chair wearing a top hat singing it so beautifully.
Wainwright has always been a shameless namedropper and he makes sure to tell us of his participation in a tribute to Joni Mitchell celebrating her 75th Birthday. Singer Seal played Both Sides Now at that event, but tonight it’s Rufus’ song to claim. it’s a song that suits his voice and he sings it beautifully, bringing the house down.
Rufus and the band end the first set with a new song, The Sword of Damocles, which to me sounds much like his newest batch of unrecorded songs that have been played live in the last couple of years. There’s nothing wrong with the song, it’s just not very memorable – perhaps a little bland.
In the fifteen minute intermission most people in the audience head either for the bar or the toilet. I head for neither when I see the queues and make a devious plan to use the toilet when the second set starts and most people will be in their seats.
The second set is a play-through of Poses from start to finish and Rufus doesn’t speak between the songs, which works really well. It’s tempting to close your eyes and think back to a time of youth and recklessness and broken hearts while listening to these songs of impossible love and lustful longing.
Since Poses might be one of my favourite records it’s very special to get to hear it from start to finish. Even the few songs I don’t care too much for sound great and I must admit I make the most of California (my least favourite) to head for a queue-less toilet, and make it back in time for one of my favourites on the record, The Tower of Learning, a song I’ve especially looked forward to hear live, along with another song, The Consort. Neither disappoint – both sung and played to perfection.
For the encore, we get one more song from Wainwright’s debut album, Imaginary Love, with a chorus that in some ways sum up the whole ‘Rufus-is-a-drunken-melodramatic-mess era’, that the two records being played tonight cover (1998-2002 approximately): ‘Every kind of love, or at least my kind of love, must be an imaginary love to start with, guess that can explain, the rain waiting walking game, Schubert bust my brains to start with’.
The next song is one of the few of the evening not from the two first records (Release the Stars from 2007), Going to a Town, which might be one of Wainwright’s most accomplished songs, which is probably why he’s chosen to play it tonight. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser – a catchy song with the evocative starting line: ‘I’m going to a town that has already been burned down…’. I think it is a reference to Berlin, but it is easy to imagine it could be London too.
For the last song, two crew-members bring a massive white furry cape on stage, and wrap it around Rufus, so only his head sticks out and it looks like he’s been swallowed by an Easter bunny, or as he puts it himself, ‘an iceberg’. Speaking of icebergs he takes a moment to applaud the many eco-warriors who’ve been demonstrating in London in the last week, and then they play a cover of Across the Universe by The Beatles. For this song about a dozen superfans enter the stage to sing backing vocals. I must admit this doesn’t really add anything of value, and why anyone would pay a fortune to do this, I don’t really understand, but each to their own. John Lennon sang it best, but Rufus does a fine job too, as the Albert Hall sing along to the iconic line, ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’.
The song finishes and Rufus invites his band members (excluding the superfans) to gather under his mega-cape, and they all take a final bow to deafening applause.
Another home run from Rufus Wainwright. An unusually musically gifted artist in the pop-rock music world, who travels the globe, making people laugh with his anecdotes and cry with his music, just like he was meant to do. Nothing’s gonna change his world.
Rufus Wainwright setlist
1. April Fools
3. Danny Boy
4. Foolish Love
5. Sally Ann
6. In My Arms
8. Beauty Mark
9. Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell cover)
10. The Sword of Damocles
11. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
12. Greek Song
16. The Tower of Learning
17. Grey Gardens
18. Rebel Prince
19. The Consort
20. One Man Guy (Loudon Wainwright III cover)
21. Evil Angel
22. In a Graveyard
23. Imaginary Love
24. Going to a Town
25. Across the Universe (The Beatles cover)