Opera House; Wellington
Sunday, March 3
On stage to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of his debut self-tited album and with a follow-on set dedicated to its follow up album, Poses Rufus Wainwright and band delivered a classy show of costume-changes and songs – it was all beautifully performed. It was at the very least a tick-the-box gig that could have only disappointed if you weren’t meant to be there; which is to say this was one for the fans. And whilst a case can be made for several songs that followed in his discography, and no doubt plenty of fans have a later favourite record, his first two albums contain the majority of his best-known, most-loved material. More than that, they were the announcement of who he is and who he would become. A precocious talent – the son of songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. Shortly after we learned about Rufus we’d find out about his sister, Martha – also a great talent, yet another in a family filled with them; a family that famously sang diary entries about one another, making songs out of the molehills that had turned into mountains.
Rufus speaks so fondly of Kate, her memory, her guidance. Loudon is never directly mentioned but his One Man Guy (recorded for Poses) is a highlight tonight – and therefore an acknowledgement of sorts. The inescapable bond of influence.
For me, some of the songs from the debut seem slow and laboured – though there are definitely highlights. Poses simply whips by, joy after joy, from its famous opener, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, through the title track, California, The Tower of Learning and The Consort – and that’s just naming an immediate handful.
The solo album still has its class, its place, its gems – Barcelona, Sally Ann – but this is all moot. Because, when it comes down to it, it’s the singer or the song. That’s all that matters. Can the singer deliver, or is the song incredible? And where some of the self-titled album’s folk-by-proxy whimsical maladies are short of a powerful melody, the fully-formed baroque pop sensibility that drives Poses makes for an alchemy of sorts: Those Songs With That Voice.
In fact with Rufus Wainwright it’s always a case of the singer being astounding. There are times, many, depending on how deep of a fan you are, where it’s no doubt a case of both – but Wainwright’s voice can carry even the flattest of tunes to a higher place.
He takes weaker moments and makes them magical through the sheer force of his voice, its power, its purity. Worth noting too that this voice – its timbre, range and spirit – remains unblemished, unchanged across two decades. Remarkable.
So, when charged with a song that is worth its weight in gold, he is the safest pair of hands or, er, lungs…
Case in point. Set one concludes with Rufus covering Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Here’s a song we’ve heard so many versions of – it’s often wonderful. And if it’s not that’s simply the fault of the singer interpreting it since it’s a nearly-perfect lyric and Mitchell deserves a place on the Mount Rushmore of modern pop songwriting. Her own version, now 50 years old, stands proud.
But Rufus Wainwright’s version set a new high for this standard.
He is the great modern-day torch singer. And we get to know this through his covers particularly.
Similarly, concluding the show with his Beatles cover, Across The Universe (included on some versions of Poses) it’s just about that voice. Spellbinding.
The band was exquisite. And Rufus’ banter is always top-notch. Self-effacing, funny, candid. Good enough to cover for the holes in some of the songwriting perhaps.
It’s the singer or the song.
Tonight, it was mostly the singer. When it was the singer and the song it was transcendent. When it was just the singer and not the song it was still better than most could ever hope to be.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron