To use the old football cliche about it being a game of two halves, here we have a gig of two halves; the only constant being the solitary figure of Rufus and a piano (he quips much later in the proceedings that this stripped back affair is due to the financial failure of his recent opera “Prima Donna” that did not give much of a return on its investment).
The proceedings begin with an announcement that during the first set Rufus requests that the audience do not applaud between songs, and only at the end of the ‘song cycle’ when he has left the stage, as this is all a part of the performance. A friend had warned me before this gig that when he saw Rufus a few years ago, the performance included a mock crucifixion which somewhat ruined the experience – I now begin to become concerned that the music will again be lower on the list of priorities. My fears are heightened when the lights go down and in the darkness Rufus walks very slowly from stage left to his piano, stage right. He is wearing a black ruffled cape, with a long train flowing behind him and his passage across the silent stage seems to take forever. It is a stark image, particularly when on the screen behind him, a blinking eye casts its detached gaze over the audience.
In absolute silence the song cycle begins: it is the current album “All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu” and it is being played in its entirety. It is well documented that the album was recorded while Wainwright’s mother (the folk singer Kate McGarrigle) was dying and eventually passed away, therefore the atmosphere is pretty tense. This is amplified by the fact that everyone remains polite and compliant and does not show their appreciation at all – it is a very odd feeling and serves only to distance the audience completely. Such an emotional subject deserves an audience/artist connection, but this is totally detached. I cannot deny that at times it is very beautiful, but like watching a sunset, the audience’s only participation is in the act of watching.
Highlights are ‘The Dream’, ‘Martha’, ‘Who Are You New York?’ and ‘Zebulon’ which are magnificent, harmonically complicated works that really show off Rufus’ voice and musicianship. However, there are melody-free moments where it is difficult to find a place in the music. It also seems to drag on for an age, when in fact it is only just short of an hour before the long walk off stage and the great relief of being able to applaud.
After the interval, the mood changes completely. The stage is now lit with colour and twinkling tea-lights bedeck the stage. Rufus (now wearing bright checked Rupert the bear trousers, a bright T-shirt and waistcoat) bounds on stage to cheers and frantic applause, as if the audience are making amends for the previous silent hour. Rufus is smiling and chats amiably whilst giving another hour’s worth of his previous 5 albums of clever, world-renowned songwriting. It is a world away from the requiem that precedes it and now the audience feels a part of the night, which I feel is (or should be) live music’s main priority.
It certainly becomes a much more intimate affair during this second half and beautiful versions of ‘Dinner At Eight’, ‘Poses’, ‘Going To A Town’, ‘The Art Teacher’, ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ flow by quickly, giving the feeling this period is much shorter, when it actually is not. He jokes before playing ‘Leaving For Paris’, introducing it with an additional ‘Not!’, reflecting on the week of restricted air travel across Europe. He also manages to reveal more of his human side making a number of mistakes, normally followed by a short laugh or shake of the head, and once by repeating the line again correctly: nice to know even someone with his incredible talent is slightly flawed, it gives us all hope.
He closes with ‘The Walking Song’, written by his mother and it is a simple, exquisite piece of performance – more so than the first set, which for all its good intentions comes over as self-indulgent and suited more to an art gallery than a live music venue. I suppose though, Rufus would see himself as an artist, rather than strictly a musician and augmenting the show with performance art is his way of keeping a foot in both camps.
It is not a easy task to pull off a two hour set with just voice and piano, but Rufus Wainwright is such a powerful performer, and the arrangements are so well conceived, that the full band versions of some of the songs on the albums are if anything improved upon. His voice, which is not to everyone’s taste I know, is stunning throughout and when he allows the connection with the audience it is spell-binding. Let’s hope the next time air travel is restricted that he gets stuck with us in Birmingham.
Reviewer – Al Neilson
Photographer – John Bentley