Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Concert Review: Rufus Wainwright at the Minnesota Zoo

Rufus Wainwright
Last Friday night I saw Rufus Wainwright in concert at the Minnesota Zoo. Rufus put on a great show, which wiped away my memories of his weird 2010 concert at Orchestra Hall. During the first half of that concert Rufus played all the songs on his then-latest album “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu” straight through with no dialogue and no applause in between songs as disturbing images of eyes opening and closing flashed on the screen behind him. The album was about the death of his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle. I can understand some of Wainwright’s artistic motivations behind the first half of the concert, but it didn’t make for a very fun experience, as most of the songs on the album are downbeat and very similar sounding. In the second half of the concert he had a lot more fun and talked to the audience. It probably wasn’t the best tour to see Rufus for the first time, but I was more than willing to take my wife’s word that Rufus was usually a lot more fun than the subdued troubadour we saw 2 years ago. I’m glad we saw Rufus again at the Zoo, as I think this concert came closer to capturing his essence as a singer, songwriter and performer. 

There were two opening acts for Rufus, which had the effect of making me more excited to see Rufus, because they weren’t that great. Krystle Warren was the first opener, and she also sings backup in Rufus’s band. She has an interesting voice, it’s super low and very jazzy, so she reminded me a bit of Nina Simone. She performed solo, mainly using her guitar to keep the rhythm of the song. I’d be interested to hear her with a full band. She was followed by Adam Cohen, who is the son of Leonard Cohen. Adam Cohen’s voice is somewhat similar to his dad’s, and his lyrics are similarly obsessed with religion and sex. But I found Adam Cohen’s lyrics to be trite and full of clich├ęs. My wife said, “I would have really liked him when I was 13.” I also thought he was trying too hard to be funny. Cohen is straight, as anyone listening to his numerous lyrics about going down on women could easily tell, but he felt compelled to make a number of gay jokes, which, although not really offensive, were out of date 20 years ago. Adam’s sister is the surrogate mother for Rufus’ baby, thus making them sort-of brothers-in-law, so Adam was joking about how Rufus knocked up his sister, “And he also tried to knock me up!” Not really funny in 2012. You’re opening for Rufus Wainwright, and probably everyone in the audience knows Rufus is gay, and no one in the audience cares that he’s gay. It’s not a big deal, there’s really no need to joke about it. Cohen name-checked his father’s song “So Long, Marianne” in one of his own songs-which just smacks of lazy writing to me. But for his closing song of the set, Cohen actually sang “So Long, Marianne.” This just seems like riding on his father’s coattails to me. If you’re in the same business as your very famous and successful father, wouldn’t you rather carve out your own identity? Rufus doesn’t sing his father Loudon Wainwright’s hit “Dead Skunk” as an encore. Adam Cohen and Rufus Wainwright have both followed in their father’s footsteps by entering the music industry. But Rufus has some advantages over Adam. Rufus’s songs are so different from Loudon Wainwright’s that no one is going to confuse them. They’re not working the same territory. Adam Cohen’s songs sounded like Leonard Cohen songs-his style seems very similar to his father’s. And there’s not much that Adam can do about that, except to expect constant comparisons. Their fathers are also at different levels of success. Loudon Wainwright is not as famous and shrouded in myth as Leonard Cohen is. Loudon Wainwright is, by and large, a cult artist. Leonard Cohen, though not as commercially successful as Bob Dylan, is often mentioned in the same breath as Dylan, and his critical standing among music critics is probably nearly as high as Dylan’s. This gives Rufus an advantage in that Rufus most likely had an easier time not being overshadowed by his father. 

Okay, now on to Rufus! Rufus opened the show in darkness with the largely a cappella song “Candles.” It was a great way to open the concert, and it showcases his truly amazing voice. There’s nobody that really sounds like Rufus Wainwright. His voice is so singular and distinctive. The only comparison I can make is that Rufus’s voice sometimes reminds me of Harry Nilsson, another supremely talented songwriter who had a soaring voice. Rufus was wearing sunglasses, black and white pants, a t-shirt and a blazer with red piping. He took the sunglasses off after 2 or 3 songs. It was clear right away that Rufus was in a really good mood. This was the last night of this leg of his tour, which probably helped contribute to Rufus’s exuberance. He performed a lot of songs from his new album, “Out of the Game.” I haven’t listened to “Out of the Game” very much, but after hearing Rufus sing these songs in concert, it’s next on my list. The title song is a great, catchy piece of pop writing. I’ve listened to it at least 4 or 5 times while writing this review. I was very happy that Rufus threw in a Judy Garland song, the terrific “The Man That Got Away,” written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, from “A Star is Born.” If you’re a Rufus fan, you should get his great tribute album, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall,” in which he re-creates Garland’s famous 1961 live album, “Judy at Carnegie Hall.” Rufus did a fantastic rendition of “The Man That Got Away,” with just piano, bass, and drums, which showcased his amazing voice. During the intro to the song, Rufus said that Liza Minnelli has been very critical of his tribute to her mother, saying in an interview that she would never listen to the album. So Rufus got back with a couple of digs at Liza during the song. Rufus also sang one of his father’s songs, “One Man Guy.” It was a nice rendition of the song, and interesting to hear Rufus sing something his dad wrote. After having seen Loudon Wainwright perform live in May, I can say that there are definitely some similarities between father and son. (I wonder how many other people were at both Loudon’s concert and Rufus’s?) Loudon and Rufus look quite a bit alike-do a Google image search for the cover of Loudon’s second album and you’ll see what I mean. Both Loudon and Rufus are naturally funny people who are very engaging performers. They’re having fun on stage, and they let the audience in on that fun by establishing a very quick rapport with the audience. Both Loudon and Rufus are kind of hams on stage, you can tell that they like the spotlight and enjoy performing.

Rufus also sang some of his older songs during the concert. He did a great solo version of “Art Teacher,” with only his piano accompanying him. Rufus played rhythm guitar on quite a few songs, which surprised me. I think he only played the piano when I saw him at Orchestra Hall. He also didn’t play any instruments on some songs, which also surprised me. But he did his trademark head shake move quite a bit, which worked well since he has nearly shoulder-length hair. One of the things that struck me most about listening to Rufus in concert is what a gift he has for melody. His songs are always very catchy, and usually very complicated. His songs are a lot of fun to listen to. He sang a haunting rendition of “Going to a Town,” which features the chorus, “I’m so tired of you, America.” Rufus said he had just performed the song in Milwaukee the night before and dedicated it to the victims of the August 5th shootings at a Sikh temple. For the encore, he sang his most well-known song “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” and then brought Adam Cohen back for a duet of Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel #2.” That was awesome, and it was fun to hear Rufus’s soaring voice on another Leonard Cohen song. (Rufus sang Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the “Shrek” soundtrack.) Rufus then closed with the dance-y “Bitter Tears” from his new album. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come from Rufus? This concert was a great show from one of the best singer/songwriters around.

Set list:
Grey Gardens
April Fools
The One You Love
Out of the Game
Perfect Man
The Man That Got Away
One Man Guy (Loudon Wainwright song)
Art Teacher-solo
Going to a Town
14th Street
Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk
Chelsea Hotel #2 (Leonard Cohen song performed with Adam Cohen)
Bitter Tears

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