Rufus Wainwright – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Sunday April 25.
When Rufus Wainwright last played the Royal Concert Hall, he ended the show by stripping to his underpants and donning a beauty queen’s sash. Nearly five years on, with the recent death of his mother (Kate McGarrigle) very much on his mind, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different.
On entering the venue, we were greeted by a notice instructing us not to applaud during the show’s first half: a straight run-through of Wainwright’s new album (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu), to be performed as a solo “song cycle” for voice and piano. The ban even extended to his exit from the stage, which was described as “part of the piece”.
“The artist has requested that you are in your seats by 7:45”, the tannoys told us, although this didn’t stop him from making us wait another fifteen minutes, just to be on the safe side. And in case we had missed the notices, an onstage announcer spelt out the “no clapping” rule one more time – generously adding that during the second half, we were free to applaud to our heart’s content.
Lit by a single spotlight, Wainwright duly made his entrance in total silence, dressed all in black and slowly marching across the stage in the manner of a one-man funeral procession. Behind his extravagantly plumed cloak, a long train stretched right back to the wings.
Aside from the grand piano, the stage’s only other adornment was a video backdrop, created by the Turner Prize-winning Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. This showed various giant close-ups of Wainwright’s slowly blinking eyes, which were coated in thick, black, tar-like make-up, giving them an eerie, insect-like appearance.
The sombre mood of the staging was more than matched by the music. Many of Wainwright’s new songs were written during the later stages of his mother’s treatment for cancer, and as such they offer an agonised premonition of her passing. These were joined by arrangements of three Shakespeare sonnets, and the closing aria from Wainwright’s debut opera, sung in French.
This was austere stuff, which demanded much from the listener – and yet Rufus remained unwilling to make any concessions to his audience. Performing in near-darkness throughout, he seemed wholly oblivious to our presence. Instead, it felt as if he was engaged in a private ritual: confronting his grief, but also trapped inside it, the stricken nature of his material offering him no means of release.
Such flagrant self-indulgence would have been easier to bear, had the material offered more in the way of dramatic progression, musical light and shade – and crucially, stronger tunes. But the brutal truth is that compositionally, this is Rufus Wainwright’s weakest album to date, and the passionate brilliance of his performance was not enough to compensate for its flaws. Robbed of his customary flair for multi-instrumental arrangement, we found ourselves wading through somewhat dirge-like reworkings of some dangerously similar cadences, intervals and flourishes. Inevitably, this placed a considerable strain on our ability to concentrate, and to maintain our emotional engagement.
That said, there were still rich rewards to be mined. Faced with his mother’s worsening condition, Rufus’s pained plea to his sister (“Martha, please call me back”), hit a particularly powerful nerve – and the album’s closing song (Zebulon) skillfully juxtaposed the singer’s present grief with wistful memories of an adolescent crush, to heartbreaking effect.
For the show’s second half, which was given over to material from the first five albums, Rufus reverted to his usual good-humoured, wittily self-deprecatory stage persona. But for all his banter and charm, an underlying sense of loss was never far from the surface. Songs in memory of the late River Phoenix (Matinee Idol) and the late Jeff Buckley (Memphis Skyline) got an airing, only to be followed by the scarcely more cheering In A Graveyard (a surprise addition to the set list, included for the benefit of the diehard “regulars” in the front rows). Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk started in a jaunty fashion, before mournfully ebbing away. (“So please be kind… if I’m in a mess….”)
In terms of vocal technique, Rufus has never sounded better; towards the end of Vibrate, a sequence of brilliantly sustained notes drew applause from the delighted crowd. But perhaps his finest moment came towards the end of Going To A Town, the penultimate song. “I’ve got a life to lead, I’ve got a soul to feed”, he crooned, sounding re-energised and renewed at last. “Making my own way home, ain’t gonna be alone”, he concluded, seconds before his warmest ovation of the night. In those few short lines, perhaps he had told us what we had wanted to hear all along.
Who Are You New York?
Sad With What I Have
Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now!
Sonnet 43: When Most I Wink…
Sonnet 20: A Woman’s Face…
Sonnet 10: For Shame Deny…
What Would I Ever Do With A Rose?
Les Feux D’Artifice T’Appellent
Nobody’s Off The Hook
The Art Teacher
In A Graveyard
Dinner at Eight
Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk
Going To A Town
The Walking Song (Kate McGarrigle cover)