Loudon Wainwright III dove headfirst into his family history during his performance in The Egg’s Swyer Theatre Friday night, turning in a performance that hit on both the contemplative and the uproariously funny.
Of course, this is par the course for Wainwright, whose songs over the years have been both deeply personal and absurdly humorous, often at the same time. But the folk singer’s latest album, “Older Than My Old Man Now,” suggests that he’s been thinking about family matters and mortality even more so than usual; this performance, which lasted a good 90 minutes, bore this out — from the song choices themselves to the passages from his father’s Life magazine columns that he read off an iPad between songs. The audience, which filled maybe two-thirds of the venue, responded with nearly continuous laughter (even during moments that weren’t really all that funny).
Wainwright took the stage just before 9 p.m. and set the mood early on with the opening number, a treatise on growing old as a “dance craze.” “Surviving Twin” was an early highlight, one of the first songs he performed dealing with his father, though it wouldn’t be the last. The title track from the new album came up immediately afterwards, drawing knowing applause.
Throughout, Wainwright somehow seemed both relaxed and intense, joking between songs only to grimace in almost painful concentration while playing.
While the father-son relationship was clearly on display, other members of Wainwright’s famous family also got the spotlight. “Over the Hill,” the only song Wainwright ever wrote with his ex-wife, the deceased Kate McGarrigle, showed the singer’s obsession with darker themes of death even at a young age, and took on new weight with this performance. Later in the set, Wainwright performed a new song, “The Idea of Us,” written for his son, singer-songwriter Rufus’ wedding last year. And a lengthy portion of the set was dedicated to a family dog, first with the goofy “Man With a Dog in the City,” then with another passage from Loudon II, this one recited from memory.
Two of the best performances were audience requests — “White Wino” mixed the humor and the family confessionals more brilliantly than any other, and “Swimming Hole” was turned into a rousing clap-along (although it was nearly derailed by a joke Wainwright made — “Put your hands together! No, no, no, don’t clap, just put your hands together.”
Folk duo The Nields — sisters Katryna and Nerissa — opened with an introspective yet upbeat set of originals. In the ‘90s the two led a five-piece band, but they’ve been doing the stripped-down duo shows more often this decade, and the more open sound suits them. With Nerissa providing skeletal acoustic guitar accompaniment, the two harmonized through songs such as set opener “The Full Catastrophe” and a plea for political bipartisanship, “Which Side Are You On?” Humor was readily apparent throughout, with “The Number One Reason That Parents Are Cranky” scoring a few laughs from the parents in the crowd. The duo closed by stepping away from the mics and unplugging the guitar for “Easy People,” perhaps the best moment of their set.