Rufus Wainwright is to mainstream American corporate pop/rock as foreign art cinema is to Hollywood’s blockbuster system. Kurt Weill-ish cabaret populism, 19th century romanticism, Shakespearean references, subtle (and not so) ironic word play, and caustic wit aren’t hallmarks of Clearchannel playlists.
Wainwright’s recognizable style comes mainly in his own self-contained mini operettas. With his voice, ornate orchestration, and intricate forms there’s no mistaking him for anyone else.
But at The Egg he was unadorned. Just him, his voice and his instrument. The veil was stripped away, leaving the tunes’ skeletons: and they’re still dazzling. The first highlight of many was “The Art Teacher.” His voice is at turns a languorous whine and a plaintive siren. Legato vocal scoops turning upward into long vibrato tones in this song often evoke Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. In fact, harmonically and melodically, this tune could easily be mistaken for a Radiohead tune. But Wainwright’s lyrics are rarely as obscured or abstract in meaning.
Following two mid-set tunes on acoustic guitar with sister Lucy came his recent ex-expatriate anthem “Going To A Town” with its refrain of “I’m so tired of America.” The tune is about his disillusionment with the country, and afterward he announced his upcoming appearance at the Democratic convention to much cheering from the audience. Not one to shy away from his sexuality, he jokingly informed the crowd of his desire for Barack “O-body:” “As good a reason to like anyone … these days,” he quipped.
More highlights came with crowd favorite “Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk,” the sarcastically hilarious “California,” “Millbrook,” “Greek Song,” and “Beauty Mark.” Wainwright’s romantic-era-influenced piano playing throughout far outshined his guitar playing and he thankfully stuck to the keys for most of the set.
Ending the evening on two consecutive high notes, both accompanied by his sister, were his now widely beloved cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and gay community rally cry “Gay Messiah.”