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In concert: Rufus Wainwright at Strathmore

rufus wainwrightSilent night: Rufus Wainwright performed at Strathmore on Saturday. (All photos by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

By Dave McKenna

Rufus Wainwright has come up with a device that any performer can use to safely debut risky new material: Force the crowd to stay quiet. Before Wainwright's Saturday show at Strathmore, a stage hand announced that the first set would be a "song cycle," and that the audience should withhold all applause until said cycle was completed so as not to disturb the flow. Even Wainwright’s exit for an intermission would be part of the story line and should be treated as such, according to these ad hoc ground rules.

Then Wainwright, 37, walked out from the wings wearing a black gown with a cathedral train, something Satan's bride might wear to the altar, sat at a grand piano and pounded out about an hour’s worth of grandiloquent dirges from “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” his most recent CD.

Other than the costume, Wainwright didn’t give anybody a reason to stifle giggles during the opening set. “All Days Are Nights” is a collection of downers, as Wainwright’s first release since his mom, Kate McGarrigle of McGarrigle Sisters fame, died earlier this year of cancer. “Martha” provided snippets of a family dealing with a crisis, and came off as Tom Waits-meets-Liberace. “The Dream” had Wainwright reporting that, “The dream has come and gone.” The gloom continued with “What Would I Ever Do With a Rose?” which despite the title didn’t reveal Wainwright as a fan of “The Bachelor” -- “Never does the dream come true without the nightmare,” he warbled. He banged on the keyboard to add some anger to the moroseness during “True Loves” (money line: “It’s the true loves that make me want to cry”).

The stage setting promoted funereality: There was never more than one spotlight shining toward Wainwright, and the big screen at the back stayed mostly dark, other than the occasional images of what appeared to be a lizard’s eye, slowly blinking.

rufus wainwright

Whether folks in the big hall were suffering or swooning in silence as the new stuff was delivered is anybody’s guess; their respect for Wainwright was made blatant with their obedience: Only one person clapped during the “All Days” portion of the show, and was quickly reminded of required decorum.

But Wainwright's most obvious gifts, which went unused in the first half of the show, come in his ability to make listeners feel good. He performed a second set loaded with old favorites while dressed in an orangey floral print suit from some designer's Who Shot the Couch? Collection, and generally behaved as the flamboyantly damaged sweetheart the fans came for. And after not saying so much as hello before intermission, he gave a rambling address about being taken with Washington's star system, since beautiful people get no bonus points and the local stars are all “old, rich white men.”

“I’ll get fat and move here!” he gushed.

"Memphis Skyline" was introduced as a tribute to the late Jeff Buckley, another member of the troubled-son-of-a-folksinger fraternity (Wainwright’s father is Loudoun Wainwright III, of “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” fame.) Sister and touring partner Martha Wainwright came to the stage to help deliver a crushing version of Leonard Cohen's over-covered "Hallelujah" (which Rufus sings very similar to how Buckley once had). It was reported earlier this year that Wainwright decided to stop performing that tune because “Justin Timberlake sang it.” The fans were thrilled to have it back in the set.

During his encore, Wainwright talked about the impact of his mom's death before playing "The Walking Song," a simple and sweet song she’d written in the 1970s about what friends might talk about while taking a stroll. As he finished, he wiped away tears and blew kisses. The crowd, no longer constrained by the show-no-emotion rule, went wild.

By Click Track  |  August 8, 2010; 10:28 AM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Rufus Wainwright  
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I also vote for part 2 of the concert over part 1. I'm surprised you did not say more about Martha Wainwright's solo performance - I enjoyed it a lot.

Posted by: karlanne1 | August 8, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I was at the show and Rufus was superb, both in the first half and the second. Anyone who is a fan of his knows that he asks for complete silence during the Lulu songs. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. I absolutely loved hearing these songs performed live. The second half was a rousing return to most of the Rufus favorites that his fans adore. Rufus was in great form, his voice soared in the Music Center and his piano playing was superb. Martha was wonderful too, as the opening act and in her duets with Rufus. Loved the fact that he has resurrected Hallelujah and sang it last night with Martha. What a treat! Anyone who has listened to and enjoyed Rufus on CD, you absolutely have to hear him live. He throws his heart and soul into each song and, if possible, his voice is even stronger in person than on a recording. All in all, it was a night to remember.

Posted by: teresae878 | August 8, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Based on the review (and Ockham's Razor), sounds like Wainwright had a nice relaxing intermission.

Posted by: laboo | August 8, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

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