Sunday, April 14, 2013

Concert Review: Rufus Wainwright at the Fitzgerald Theater

Rufus Wainwright at the Fitzgerald Theater, April 13, 2013. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

Last night my wife and I went to see Rufus Wainwright at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul. We also saw him last summer at the Minnesota Zoo, which I wrote about here. This show was a solo concert, presented by Minnesota Public Radio station 89.3 The Current. It was a terrific show, and Rufus was in a very good mood. Wainwright has an easy, relaxed charisma on stage. He’s able to do a solo show very easily because he’s so obviously at ease in front of an audience. He’s funny, charming, and intelligent. As I noted in my review of Rufus’s show at the Zoo last year, he definitely has some traits in common with his father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, who is also a very funny, charming, and outgoing solo performer. (I saw Loudon in concert last year at the Cedar Cultural Center, which I reviewed here.)

Rufus Wainwright is a very unique singer, songwriter, and performer. There’s no one I’d really compare him to, which I think is a good thing. His songs encompass many different sounds and styles. Rufus’s voice is so amazing. He has a huge range, and he can project so much emotion with his vocals. He held some super long notes on “Vibrate,” and it was fun to hear him show off a little bit.

It’s clear that Rufus really enjoys the Twin Cities, as he mentioned that he’s always loved Minneapolis and that he’s beginning to love Saint Paul as well. As he put it “Saint Paul’s not trying too hard.” This is a great explanation of the charm of Saint Paul. Saint Paul is what it is; it’s not trying to be showy. (I grew up in Minneapolis but now live in Saint Paul.) Rufus also revealed that he was wearing a new pair of shoes which he purchased from Heimie’s Haberdashery, which is one of the best men’s stores in the Twin Cities. This also gives me something in common with Rufus, as I have also bought a pair of shoes at Heimie’s-in addition to the suit I was married in. 

Wainwright opened with “The Art Teacher,” which is one of my favorite songs of his. I love the story the song tells, I love that it’s about art, and I love that he sings it from a female perspective. “The Art Teacher” tells the story of a schoolgirl who has a crush on her art teacher, “He asked us what our favorite work of art was/ But never could I tell him it was him.” Great song, and with Rufus’s dynamic piano playing it made for a dramatic concert opener. 

Rufus’s vocals were soaring on the catchy “Vibrate,” aka, “My Phone’s On Vibrate For You,” and he held a very, very long note at the end of the song. Wainwright has an amazing gift for writing infectious melodies that remain in your brain long after you’ve heard them. 

Rufus switched from piano to guitar for “Out of the Game” the super catchy title track to his most recent album, and “Jericho,” also from “Out of the Game.” “Out of the Game” is one of my favorite Rufus songs; it’s so catchy and has such a great arrangement. 

For the rest of the concert Rufus played piano, and the next song was “Who Are You New York?” His piano playing on “New York” is so gorgeous and lovely to listen to. Rufus told a story about meeting the singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, shortly before Buckley tragically drowned in 1997. Rufus said that he had been somewhat jealous of Buckley, as his career seemed to be advancing at a faster pace than Wainwright’s. But Rufus went on to say that by spending time with Buckley he learned how gifted and fragile Buckley was, and his envy went away. Rufus said he wished they could have sung together, which would have been a magical meeting of great voices. Rufus then sang “Memphis Skyline,” which he wrote for Buckley after his death. “Skyline” segued directly into “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen song that both Buckley and Wainwright recorded well-known versions of. Then it was time for intermission, with Rufus promising us a special surprise for the second half of the concert.

The special surprise was the very first choral performance of  Wainwright's piece "Bloom," which was written for a dance company. "Bloom" is based on poems by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and was sung by the Twin Cities choir Vocal Essence, conducted by Philip Brunelle. "Bloom" was very nice, and you could tell that Rufus was really thrilled to have it sung the way it's meant to be. This special touch made Wainwright's affection for the Twin Cities clear. That he went to the time and trouble and expense to have a local choir perform this piece says a lot about how he feels about the Twin Cities.

Rufus then returned to the piano and sang “Going to a Town,” another one of my favorites of his. He followed that with the very catchy “Montauk,” which imagines Rufus’s daughter going to visit Rufus and his husband on Long Island when she’s an adult. The next song was the very moving “Zebulon.” I’ve heard “Zebulon” before, but had never paid it much attention. For whatever reason, the emotion of the song really struck me when I heard Rufus sing it last night. “Zebulon” was the closing song on Rufus’s 2010 album “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” his concept album about the death of his mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle. So obviously the song has a lot of meaning for Rufus. It’s a slow song, with a melancholy melody. Lyrically, it’s about the narrator’s friend Zebulon coming to visit, whom the narrator has not seen in a long time. The only reference to death is the lyric “My mother’s in the hospital,” but a prevailing sense of sadness runs through the song. It also struck me last night how close Rufus obviously was with his mother. The first time I saw Rufus in concert was 2010, when he was touring “All Days Are Nights.” He performed the entire album from start to finish, with a request for no applause between songs. Rufus also didn’t talk between any of the songs. Once that half of the show was over, Rufus was his usual outgoing self. It was a strange experience, seeing this singer I wasn’t very familiar with performing sad song after sad song with no interaction from the audience. He seemed like a man possessed. Looking back, I think I get that concert more. His mother died and he was obviously very close to her and was still mourning her through performing these songs. References to his mother’s death still crop up on the “Out of the Game” album. On “Montauk,” the lyrics reference “One day years ago in Montauk lived a woman now a shadow/There she does wait for us in the ocean.” The closing song on “Out of the Game” is the lovely “Candles,” which is also a tribute to Rufus’s mother. During the encore, Rufus spoke effusively about tribute concerts for his mother this summer in New York, and the upcoming documentary, “Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You,” which documents one of the tribute concerts.

 Rufus closed the show with perhaps his most famous song, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which he gave a lovely reading of. He quickly came back for an encore, and played an interesting mix of four songs. First up was “Millbrook,” from his first album, followed by a song written by his mother, “The Walking Song,” which was lovely and quite moving. Next was “Complainte de le Butte,” which is a cover of a French song that Rufus sang for the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack. Finally, Rufus closed the show with “Foolish Love,” the opening song from his first album. On one of the encore songs, I think it was “Foolish Love,” he made several mistakes in his piano playing and laughed at himself for it, but if he hadn’t pointed them out I don’t think I would have noticed-his playing still sounded great to me. It was a fun evening with a very talented and gregarious performer.

Set list:
The Art Teacher
The Maker Makes
Out of the Game
Who Are You New York?
Memphis Skyline
Bloom-sung by Vocal Essence
Going To a Town
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
The Walking Song
Complainte de la Butte (from Moulin Rouge)
Foolish Love

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