Folk legend Wainwright still has old-school charm and sound

Loudon Wainwright III’s concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music was full of macabre wit and humor.

By Blair Thornburgh

For most college students, the name Loudon Wainwright III probably requires a little context. My Friday night plans to see the acclaimed folk singer–songwriter in concert earned me a lot of blank stares until I added the qualifier: “You know, Rufus’s dad,” referring to his musician son, the guy from the Shrek soundtrack. Or: “He played the obstetrician in Knocked Up.” Or: “He was Steven’s dad on Undeclared.” Oh yeah, that guy. He plays music too?

Well, yes. In addition to his eclectic forays into acting (remember him on M.A.S.H.?) and his impressive offspring (he is also the father of singers Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche), Loudon has had a not-too-shabby musical career himself. The songwriter has released over 20 studio albums since 1970 and won the 2010 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for his tribute to the legendary folk singer Charlie Poole, High Wide & Handsome. As if his track record weren’t enough, his show at the Old Town School of Folk Music was solid proof of both his musical talent and his tongue-in-cheek wit.

The 64-year-old Wainwright, whose first hit in the ’70s was the roadkill ballad “Dead Skunk,” opened the show with “The Morgue,” a song equal parts morbid and cheeky. Between repeated lines of narrating his visit to a lover dead “from a guilty conscience and a broken heart,” Wainwright hammed it up with the audience, winking and sticking out his tongue to punctuate the song’s surprisingly upbeat tone. Death and decay, he said, were the running themes of his songs these days, having matured from the topic of his earlier career: “shitty love.” His age, however, seemed to add a special poignancy to songs like “Motel Blues,” even when he felt it necessary to qualify, with a grin, that the song “used to get me laid all the time.” Whether the lyrics were serious or not, his musicianship was natural and precise as he played his guitar with ease and fluency.

Wainwright’s good rapport with the crowd was tangible, thanks in no small part to the intimacy of the Old Town venue. The small stage and close seating made even the furthest listeners feel close enough for a chat. Though this was his second show of the night, Wainwright did his best to respond to requests, good-naturedly trying to remember songs from his immense repertoire and inviting fans to take a picture of him with their cell phones after the show if “you can figure out how to work the fucking thing.” But despite this brief moment of luddite-itude and his cantankerous (yet good-natured) gripes about aging, Wainwright was spry and ebullient, hopping around, tapping his foot, and constantly making faces. He encouraged participation, having the audience sing along to the twangy chorus of “Cash for Clunkers,” one of the songs from his latest album, 10 Songs for the New Depression.

Opener Kim Richey played a short but undeniably sweet set of songs that provided a nice counterpoint to Wainwright’s. While Wainwright’s rapid-fire lyrics can border on gimmicky and tend to avoid anything but oblique references to the personal, Richey’s words cut deep with both resolve and tenderness. Her rendition of “I’m All Right,” all the more powerful in its stripped-down acoustic form, let the distinctive clarity of her voice shine through.

By the end, it was obvious that Wainwright was a man who does what he loves—playing music for an appreciative crowd. And if more of us young folks could get to know Rufus’s dad a little better, I think we’d be in for a wonderful and timeless discovery.