By Mike Finkelstein
Rufus Wainwright played a solo show for an adoring audience Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center. Judging by all I overheard, it seemed that many in the crowd had already seen him perform at least once.
From the start, people recognized the songs after perhaps a chord and a half. What was most remarkable is the way RW delivered his songs. The approach is stripped down, plain and simple, to his rich singing and either a piano or a guitar. This dynamic allows Wainwright to put the emotions of the song over as directly as possible. And he is very good at it.
In a state of the art venue such as the Valley Performing Arts Center, the room’s natural sound is very still, almost church-like. It allows a performer to build their sound with little interference from the quirks of the room. For this show the vocals were mixed prominently in the house P.A. system and a super sensitive microphone was used to catch all the nuances of RW’s singing. The result was a mostly great sound. However during his phrases with sibilance, or just pushing more air than usual, the clarity (and some of the meaning) of the words was lost on someone like myself, who hadn’t heard them before. At times, I couldn’t quite make out what he was singing. Still, much of the audience already knew the words and they were delighted.
A performer like Wainwright usually makes his points with his voice. He deftly extended words and phrases as he blew up syllables for dramatic effect. He also switched between piano and guitar every two or three tunes to keep things fresh. At one point he introduced a big patched, thick-necked, orange guitar he had rescued from a music shop somewhere in the depths of Seoul, Korea. It was a beater but they had charisma together as he bashed on it until it was certainly out of tune. His guitar style features a curiously pounding attack. He doesn’t use a pick and strums open handed, perhaps a nod to flamenco or just not having a pick around when he was learning to strum. Whatever works is what to use.
As many know, Wainwright is the brother of singer Martha Wainwright, and the son of noted musicians Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle. He played his mother’s “The Walking Song” beautifully on piano and also delivered a memorable little tune called “Martha,” about desperately trying to reach his sister by phone. This song featured pounding dissonant piano chords that just seemed to slam you down like the disappointment of one more failed urgent phone call. There was so much tension between the chords and the silence separating them that you could cut it with a knife.
Throughout the show, in the great singer/songwriter tradition, stories were told, and situations revealed. Wainwright told us of his relationship with the late great Jeff Buckley. He told of how they had first met in New York when he was a struggling unknown resenting the fact that Buckley was an ascending star. Later, it seems, they both covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” unbeknownst to each other. They actually bonded as friends just a month or so before Buckley sadly drowned while swimming in the Mississippi River outside of Memphis. Wainwright wrote the haunting “Memphis Skyline” about his friend’s death. On Saturday we got both “Memphis Skyline” and “Hallelujah,” and it is intriguing to wonder how their uncommonly expressive voices might have sounded together on “Hallelujah.” They did discuss doing it.
For many performers, stripping their music down to one instrument and their voice is a rare and special occasion. For Rufus Wainwright, it is his chosen approach. While many of his songs would sound great with a full band arrangement, that isn’t what he’s after now. Instead he is getting every little bit of leveraged nuance he can out of his voice. More power to him because he puts on an impressive performance in this format.
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