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November 1, 2005

Wainwright banters his way through intimate set

The first of this year’s MAB-run concerts saw Rufus Wainwright grace Mandel Hall on October 28. While previous shows, like last year’s Summer Breeze, have featured an odd mixture of performers, Friday’s bill was surprisingly cohesive and balanced. Support came in the form of the somewhat enigmatic M. Ward, an Oregon-based singer-songwriter who is highly reminiscent of Bob Dylan when playing his guitar and harmonica, and who actually sounds like Wainwright (as well as his father, Loudon Wainwright III) when sitting at the piano. His set, while unarguably good as shown by the impressive wordless guitar melody that was the opening number, nonetheless dragged on for a couple songs too many.

Wainwright’s set, on the other hand, was almost perfect in length: a very respectable 16 songs. It included songs from all four of his albums and some extra tidbits as well: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” closed the main set, and the last song of the night was “Complaine de la Bute,” originally recorded for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. He alternated between piano and guitar-accompanied songs, though his preference for (and mastery of) the former was evident. If anything, the show was a bit too short. As the audience left Mandel Hall at the end of the night, many people could be heard saying things like, “oh, that was wonderful, but I wish he’d played [insert favorite Wainwright song here].”

And it was wonderful indeed; the performance left no doubt that Wainwright is a gifted musician and songwriter, but the most memorable part of the evening was not exactly the music, but Wainwright’s rapport with the audience. He was rather talkative and keen on banter, lending the event a very low key, even informal, feel at times. Appearing on stage looking for all the world like just another disgruntled college student, clad in jeans and a black shirt (a far cry from the exuberant sequins he reputedly donned for some of his shows earlier this year, though his guitar was sparkly). Wainwright joked constantly, occasionally inserting bits of monosyllabic nonsense into songs, as happened with “California,” and repeatedly apologized for his mistakes and the quality of his voice. Apparently, this performance came in the middle of rehearsals for shows later this year, and he was only doing it because he “had to pay his mortgage,” or so he joked. More than once, he played the same bars of a song three or four times, until he finally managed to reach the necessary note. These repetitions would be heralded, more often than not, by a “no,” a “let’s try that again,” or simply a grimace. During “Low Grade Happiness,” which he warned the audience was a song with a tendency to fall apart, he attempted the same few bars over and over again, once even saying “but I had it so good last time!” although he was somewhat more successful when it came to “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.”

There was even space for disguised political commentary, quickly and tangentially touching on the Valerie Plame scandal and the gay rights movement. “Gay Messiah” was dedicated to everyone who supported the gay cause at some point or another—and some nostalgia as well. “Memphis Skyline,” he explained, was written for Jeff Buckley, “who was a wonderful singer-songwriter. Almost as handsome as me. And now he’s dead.” The sober “11:11” was written “before and after September 11.” Similar introductions preceded some songs; others were heralded by little stories. Early in the night, while gazing around Mandel Hall, he claimed that he felt like he was in a university, or, to be more specific, a Hollywood depiction of one, and half expected Judy Garland to appear at any moment and burst into song; during “April’s Fools,” he asked the audience to sing the lines that traditionally belong to his sister, Martha Wainwright, because the setting seemed appropriate, even if Judy herself had yet to show up.

Having never seen Wainwright perform before, it is hard to tell if all the mannerisms were genuine or scripted; certainly the bits about failing to reach the notes he needed to reach were real, but somehow the stories appeared to come to him with too much ease, almost reminiscent of stand-up comedy. Maybe it is just the mark of a seasoned performer—he was touring with his sister and mother as early as age 13—although, in the end, that is irrelevant. Wainwright received two effusive standing ovations (one at the end of the main set, another one after the encore), and appeared genuinely touched by them, even if it was only the thought of paying his mortgage that had lured him away from Manhattan.