October 11, 2007

Whimsical Wolf whisks through the Windy City, kite in tow

It was 8:25 p.m., and the crowd was growing restless. Patrick Wolf was scheduled to come on at 8 p.m. after his supporting act Bishi, but there was no sign of him. When the lights began to dim, the crowd cheered. But it was a false alarm, and “Awwwws” filled the air, drowning out the interim music. I personally would have preferred to hear more of Bishi, a performer who combined headbanging sitar solos with a pounding electropop backbeat, but someone decided to put Britney Spears’s In the Zone on repeat instead.

Around 8:40, when Wolf finally strode on stage, his arms and legs shimmering with glitter under the stage lights, it was instantly clear why he was later than usual. Wolf had a small black-and-white kite made out of wire looped around his body, so the kite itself bobbled over his left shoulder. He sat down and with no introduction he began to play “Wind in the Wires” on the ukulele. Wolf waited until the end of the song to take off the contraption and explain that, on the way from the dressing room to the stage, he mysteriously became entangled in a wayward kite. But on further reflection, he added, grinning, that it wasn’t that unusual, because he was in—of course—the Windy City!

It is this sort of goofy humor, this willingness to spend 45 extra minutes to make a very quick joke, that either endears Wolf to you or makes you loathe him. The crowd on Tuesday was willing to forgive the wait, most likely due to Wolf’s ridiculous amount of talent and commanding stage presence. Wolf is extremely theatrical in his performances. He dances, skips, beats his chest, strides from one end of the stage to another, leaps from the drum risers, or simply falls to the ground, all while singing.

At the same time, there is a sense of honesty and genuine feeling in his lyrics, which are filled with romantic passion. Much of his music, while upbeat, is also somewhat melancholy, such as the song “The Stars,” written for his grandparents, or the solemn “Jacob’s Ladder.” Wolf also employs a backup band playing double bass and violin along with squealing electronic percussion, and plays duets on the violin on occasion. He excels at creating a sort of storybook atmosphere with his songs of street urchins and libertines, young lovers and Victorian villains. He draws the listener in, coupling his strong, distinctive voice with intricate melodies, from the plaintive ballad “Magpie,” performed with Bishi, to the opening “Wind the Wires.” There’s also a pastoral, almost nostalgic undercurrent to much of his work, despite all the electronics; “Wind in the Wires,” for instance, conjures up images of the English seaside on a quiet, rainy day, and “Pigeon Song” is a simple elegy for the days when pigeons flocked in Trafalgar Square.

That’s not to say Wolf is all folk-pop. Wolf segued from “Jacob’s Ladder” to the ominous, slinky dance number “Tristan,” which got 30-something hipsters to un-ironically pump their fists in the air while singing. In addition, the entire crowd danced along to a sped-up, gypsy-folk version of “The Libertine,” and went wild for “The Magic Position,” three minutes of pure pop joy, complete with costume change into wig, platforms, and military jacket on the part of Wolf.

All in all, Wolf’s charisma, songwriting skill, and support from his backing band provided for an entertaining, very colorful evening.