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His Sins Were Many, But So Were His Pleasures: Rufus Wainwright, Live at the MN Zoo

His Sins Were Many, But So Were His Pleasures: 
Rufus Wainwright, Live at the MN Zoo

Ah, Rufus Wainwright under a twilight sky on a beautifully mild evening at the Minnesota Zoo’s Weesner Family Amphitheatre… does it get any better?

Well, actually, yes, it could have been better, but then we are talking about the ever-precocious, disarmingly charming Mr. Wainwright, so I knew pretty much what to expect; an evening of cabaret-style self-indulgence – which is exactly what he delivered.

The evening got off on the right note, with opening act Lucy Wainwright Roche (what a musical pedigree!), the headliner’s sister, looking coquettish in a pair of ruby red slippers and matching sunglasses.   Accompanying herself on guitar, Ms. Wainwright Roche’s voice and music fell on the slight side, save for a rather sweet cover of Robyn’s ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ (which could have used a bit of trimming).  However, it was her quirky personality and repartee with the audience that made her such a beguiling presence.  Sharing stories about a six week European tour as her brother’s opening act, Lucy managed to charm the pants off the diverse Minnesota crowd before ending her set with a sing-along of the Springsteen standard ‘Hungry Heart’

The evening attracted a disparate crowd, which included soccer moms and their husbands, dandy hipsters, aging hippies, Deadheads, late-90’s college graduates, and, of course, tons of gay men.  Whatever the case, Rufus had them mesmerized from note one, kicking off his set with three tunes while seated at the richest sounding grand I have heard in ages.  Striding on stage sockless, in a black/silver lame’ outfit that he appeared to have outgrown (in more ways than one) and a pair of killer black shoes, Mr. Wainwright launched into the brooding ‘Grey Gardens’ with great aplomb. He was in fine voice all evening, even on the undulating, crescendoing  ‘Vibrate’, during which he shared with the audience his displeasure with a certain sustained note.

Vocally strong, Rufus’ slurred, careening vocal style and overall sound frequently reminded me of the late Peter Allen’s, with touches of Billy Joel thrown in.  Accompanying himself on the piano and an electric acoustic guitar, he remarked how much fun it was being on a tour sans backing band, an element that might have served him better.  He certainly would have benefited from the presence of some type of percussion, as his internal sense of rhythm was woefully ‘playful’ throughout the evening. 

The very best and the worst of Rufus Wainwright were on display this night.  When his compositions are concise and focused, he tends to be very, very good (like on most of his excellent 2012 album, ‘Out of the Game’).  When they are unwieldy, rambling, and obtuse, he threatens to try the patience of his audience with songs that tend to overstay their welcome.  Bottom line:  the man could use a nice red editing pen, or at least develop a sense of proportion (how many codas and repeats does a song really need?).

Last night, highlights included the succinct, soaring pop of ‘Out of the Game’, ‘Jericho’, 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk', 'Going to a Town', 'Tired of America', and a somber song, written with his father in mind, ‘Dinner at Eight’. 

Trials included a new song written as an answer to Conor Oberst’s scathing ‘Kick’ (about Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy) called ‘Treat a Lady’ – an unfocused, meandering, obtuse, and lingering piece – and the aria(?) ‘Les feux d'artifice t'appellent’ from his impending, threatened “opera” ‘Prima Donna’ – a trifling, maudlin pseudo modern classical affair that had my eyes rolling.  Both songs had me searching the sky above for birds, or planes, or clouds, or anything to focus on other than what was going on onstage.

Questionable might be the best way to describe his odd, ineffectual three-number ode to Liza Minnelli.  His sister Lucy returned to the stage to portray Liza as a sort of unmasked ‘Phantom of the Opera’. As parodies, go, this one was slight, awkward and a tad amateurish.

So, it sounds like I had a bad time, huh?  No, nothing could be further from the truth.  I find Rufus fascinating, even as he revels in his pretentious brand of naval-gazing.  There isn’t another performer like him at the moment.  It is his ego and abundant self-regard as well as his childhood, background, personal demons, apparent insecurities and lack of discipline that help create a type of music that is uniquely his. 

How can you not enjoy a musical unicorn?

So, yes, the evening was far from perfect, for, as stated, I enjoy Rufus best when he is concise and focused.  Last night at the Weesner Family Amphitheatre there were a plethora of Mr. Wainwright-s onstage to absorb and, by and large, the appreciative crowd was absolutely tickled to bear witness.  

Yes, Rufus’ sins were many, but, so too, were the pleasures.


Queer Heaven said...

Self-indulgent maybe, but a true one of a kind!
His Judy at Carnegie Hall..... was spectacular.

whkattk said...

Wow, Upton! I haven't heard of Rufus in a long, long time. Nice to know he's still out there making music. He may have warbled a few sins, but it's usually performing warts and all that that helps an artist grow.