What’s left to say about Rufus Wainwright? The American-Canadian musical wunderkind, destined to have a career as a troubadour. ‘Always travelling, but not in love.’ He sings about heartbreaks and headaches, forever bemoaning he never became a proper superstar. Yet, he firmly remains a critics’ darling and sells out some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, working with musical legends and getting to do the musical projects he wants to make. Could Rufus Wainwright be one of the most privileged musicians on the planet? He’s a contender. But he’s also really, really good.
Backing Wainwright is 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). Eckroth is also tonight’s support act. Her half-hour set of lovely songs sets a melancholy tone for what’s to come later in the evening, with songs about a time in her life where her father died, she’d lost her job, and she moved from New York to Los Angeles. The result is a selection of beautiful and atmospheric songs – and some of which sound a little bit like Lana Del Rey (not a bad thing, in my opinion).
A more professional demeanour has long since replaced the rambling charm of Wainwright’s younger years. 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 belt out a song but also the awareness to tone it down when needed, it makes Wainwright a compelling singer. His piano playing is excellent, and 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 perfect 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 account about Cohen?) and how he never knew whether Cohen liked his music or not, though he was always supportive. The closest Rufus can 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 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 beautiful 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 is a shameless namedropper, and he makes sure also 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 very well indeed, 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 latest batch of unrecorded songs that have been played live in the last couple of years. There’s nothing wrong with the song as such; 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, but I head for neither when I see the queues and make a devious plan to use the bathroom when the second set starts and most people are 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 great. It’s a perfect opportunity to close your eyes and think back to a time of youth, 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 feels special to hear it from start to finish. Even the few songs I don’t care too much for sound great. Still, I must admit I make the most of California (my least favourite) to head for a queue-less toilet. I 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 hearing played live, along with another song, The Consort. Neither disappoints – both songs are 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-mess-era’, that the two records 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 likely why he chose to play it tonight. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser – a catchy tune with the evocative starting line: ‘I’m going to a town that has already been burned down….’ I think it’s a reference to the ruins of Berlin in the aftermath of World War 2, but it is easy to imagine it could just as well be about London after one of the big fires the old town has endured.
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. It looks like an Easter bunny swallowed him, or as he describes it himself, it looks like ‘an iceberg’. Speaking of icebergs, Rufus takes a moment to applaud the many eco-warriors who’ve been demonstrating in London in the last week, and then the band play a cover of Across the Universe by The Beatles.
About a dozen superfans enter the stage to sing backing vocals for this song. I must admit this doesn’t add anything of value to the concert but each to their own. John Lennon sang it best, but Rufus does a fine job too of leading the Albert Hall in a 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 loud applause.
Another home run from Rufus Wainwright. He is 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)