TVD Live: Rufus Wainwright at the Music Center at Strathmore, 12/8

Rufus Wainwright is an accomplished enough figure in music, having just opened his second opera, that he needn’t have to look back. Lucky for his longtime fans that he is, marking his 20th anniversary in show business with a tour that showcases his first two albums, which made for an elegant and stirring evening Saturday at Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore.

With the impeccable genes—son of the wry singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian songbird Kate McGarrigle—the young Wainwright has nonetheless forged his own career, with beguiling songs and strong tenor aching toward showy standard pop to such a degree that he presented his own version of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall. (Wainwright’s heady genes will continue: He and his husband have a daughter by way of Leonard Cohen’s daughter—what pressure she will have to be a poet and songwriter).

It seems to be as interesting for Wainwright as it is for his audience to look back on the early days of the debut Rufus Wainwright and Poses. Unlike other acts who recreate old albums, he didn’t present the songs of the first in order, or even all of it (leaving out three tunes). But he did do all of Poses in the second half, in order, and without the charming and funny commentary between tunes that he used in the show’s first half.

Wainwright takes care with these songs, doing them better and with more confidence and stretching them out to such a degree that when he did the little ditty “Millbrook,” it seemed short by comparison. He had a bit to say about his mother, and his French Canadian upbringing, but little about his dad, whose “One Man Guy” he did straightforwardly, as he did on his second album.

Without saying anything it also showed how different their styles were—while the old man has simple chords and hard truths, the son’s lyrics are often more florid and yearning, in tunes festooned with rococo flair.

He spoke of Leonard Cohen as more of a figure worthy of fear and respect. If the debut was more a Montreal album, because that’s where he largely wrote its songs (later recorded in Los Angeles with Jon Brion), he said Poses was his New York album, written in the same Chelsea Hotel where Cohen once also stayed and wrote.

His various capes and top hats were more winks to flamboyant performance than full-fledged costumes. The exception was late in the show, where wearing a black cape to stand and sing the rocker “Evil Angel,” the stage bathed in red light, he resembled a malevolent Disney villianess. Ending the Poses set alone on the piano for “In a Graveyard,” it was clear he could hold a whole show on his own if he wanted.

There was a new song to cap the first set, “The Sword of Damocles” that he said he wrote before the U.S. midterms. Its political content wasn’t overt, except to advise, “Raise kindness above all else / Avoid the books of hatred behind the shelves.”

More direct was the striking “Going to a Town” from a decade ago, a pointed, and crushing tune about his bullying neighbor to the south with a chorus “I am so tired of you, America” that seemed more timely now that its chief executive had declared his some sort of trade enemy. Even more immediate, in the aftermath of devastating wildfires, was its opening line: “I’m going to a town that’s already been burnt down.”

Fresh from singing for Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday tribute concert in Los Angeles last month, Wainwright gave a slow and masterly reading of her “Both Sides, Now” in his controlled tremolo. His cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” had been included as a bonus track on Poses. It’s as fitting now as ever of course, and he’s been closing this series of shows with it.

Still you’d think he might have mentioned that it also happened to be the very same night, 38 years earlier, that Lennon was gunned down (Action on gun violence since then has certainly been more along the lines of its chorus, “Nothing’s gonna change my world”).

Wainwright’s show throughout was aided by his able quintet of musicians (and a pair of black clad roadies bringing guitars and glittery capes as needed). The string sections of the original songs were handled by synthesizers, one of them by Rachel Eckroth, who also provided the one-woman opening act, surrounding herself with loops and tracks and doubling vocal effects.

“The record doesn’t sound like this at all,” she confided. “I’m up here in my little spaceship trying to make things happen without a band.”

April Fools
Danny Boy
Foolish Love
Sally Ann
In My Arms
Beauty Mark
Both Sides, Now
The Sword of Damocles

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
Greek Song
The Tower of Learning
Grey Gardens
Rebel Prince
The Consort
One Man Guy
Evil Angel
In a Graveyard

Imaginary Love
Going to a Town
Across the Universe

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