Review: Rufus Wainwright – Festival Marquee, CQAF 2019
It’s been at least a couple of years since Rufus Wainwright visited Belfast, so by way of compensation to the fans he gave us not one but two nights during this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. I was one of the first in line to nab a seat in the Festival Marquee on Bank Holiday Monday, and I am very glad I did.
I have seen Rufus six or seven times in the past but I was particularly looking forward to this concert because it is part of a tour celebrating twenty years since the release of his seminal album, Poses. Much of the tour offered the full band experience which is always a blast, but Belfast was a solo show. Still it is remarkable what a superb show he can deliver, just him and his guitar and his fabulous piano.
Support for the evening was Dani; this Armagh songstress is artist in residence for the festival and can be seen at various festival events across the month of May. She bounded onto the stage for her thirty minute set looking cool and colourful and with a hairstyle that might have been inspired by the Moomins’ Little My. Her musical skill is formidable and her dexterous playing reminded me very much of one of my favourite musicians, Peter Mulvey. Her playing on the instrumental piece entitled The Magpie was particularly accomplished.
Two songs in her set were dedicated to the much mourned journalist Lyra McKee which was a fitting touch. This was my first time seeing Dani and I can say that I enjoyed her set although I began to find some of the songs a bit “samey.” Her last song, Three Wise Women was, she told us, “very much rooted in the magic that is this island.” Sung a capella, it had a mythical, eerie sound and was probably my favourite song of her set.
When Rufus finally came onstage dressed in black, there was a ripple of whispers around the audience, and it transpired that this mustachioed Rufus was a surprise to many. A moustache can be divisive, it’s hard to get it right – but I liked it! And what looked at first like a black leather jacket was actually a spangly blazer, accessorised with a knitted black scarf.
Without introduction he strode to his beautiful Steinway piano and was straight into Grey Gardens. This song may have had more impact on me than any other Rufus song because not only was I enchanted by it’s beauty when I first heard it, but on investigating the lyrics further trying to identify the mysterious Tadzio, it led me to discover a love of Death in Venice and in turn Thomas Mann. Not only that, but it pointed me to the wonderful 1970s Maysles Brothers Grey Gardens documentary about Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. (If you haven’t seen it – I suggest you do). It was then that I realised the music of Rufus Wainwright had a lot more to offer than just pretty melodies and a beautiful voice.
Following this first song Rufus said how pleased he was to be back in “almost McGarrigle country”, (Rufus’s mum Kate was of Irish heritage). He seemed happy, relaxed, smiley, and when he went into the his next song and held that note for what seemed like impossibly long, never have over a thousand people ever cheered so enthusiastically for someone singing the word “Vibrate.”
He drew attention then to his scarf, which he told us had been given to him by a fan and which he had chosen to wear because he felt made him feel most “Irish” of all the garments he had in his luggage. He’s nothing if not resourceful though and as he was about to sing the beautiful Complainte De La Butte he said it could also make him feel like a French peasant. Bathed in pink light, Rufus sang beautifully, but even with my limited French I think I picked up that he “la la laad” a little bit when he forgot the words – but I could be mistaken. Anyway it couldn’t have mattered less – I have rarely seen Rufus so relaxed and personable on stage.
As is the norm for members of the Wainwright clan, it wasn’t long before he brought family into the proceedings. He prefaced the next song by explaining how it was written for his mother, Kate McGarrigle, who thought his first songs were, frankly, crap. He composed Beauty Mark for her and says, “after that she subsequently loved everything I ever wrote until the day she died.” With just him and his piano, it sounds as complete and lovely as on the record.
Next it was time for him to grab his guitar. Now I am a huge fan but even I am willing to admit that he’s nowhere near as accomplished on his second instrument – but since he’s simply virtuosic on the piano he can be forgiven for being a merely competent guitarist. And, it’s always nice to see him front of stage. After tending to his wonky mic stand which he christened the Leaning Tower of Belfast, he gave us Out of the Game and Jericho from his last true “pop” album back in 2012. Since then he’s been concentrating on his opera and his re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s sonnets so fans were ecstatic about the announcement that he has just finished recording for a new pop record. It’s kind of a running joke between Rufus and his fans that his records never achieve the success or recognition that they deserve, so when he explained that the new record would not be released until April 2020 because he and the producer want to be sure to “set it up really great, before its ultimate demise,” the resulting giggle felt conspiratorial. It’s like we know how good it’ll be – and it’s those who don’t “get it” who are the dumb ones!
A really exciting surprise of the evening was the chance to hear a brand new song from that forthcoming album. Rufus is, as many will know, married to a German; the desperately talented, desperately handsome Jorn Weisbrodt. And being married to a German he explains, can be rather intense. One of the rules of their marriage is that Jorn allegedly insists upon there being a song about him on every album. Seven years ago on Out of the Game that song was Song of You, which was very sweet – but this new song is a new level entirely. Keeping up with the family tradition of exposing personal details in song, this is the most beautiful, romantic love letter to a life partner, and the intimacy is tangible.
The opening line, “Well it’s coming on to thirteen years together baby,” and the realisation dawns that despite a misspent youth of hedonistic pursuits, Rufus is now one half of one of show-business’s most successful, most enduring marriages. We’ve been starved of new songs from Rufus in recent years, and what a treat that this one gives us an insight into their usually very private home-life. The mundanities of “sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean” are touched upon, but it’s the declaration of unending love that is most touching. “And I pray that your face is the last I see on a peaceful afternoon, leaving the living room.” And if that weren’t enough to bring you to tears, he added, “And just in case you go before me, Rest assured, This I can guarantee, That my face is the last you’ll see.” If ever there were a purer, more honest love song written, I don’t know what it is!
A change of tone then but another new song; Early Morning Madness, with the lyrics “I’m a perfect mess,” is a morose little lament. Originally written about being desperately hungover, Rufus tells us, “the more I play it, the more I hear the news in the States, the more I realise it could be about Trump – it’s awful!” With each song his voice just seems to get better and better.
Following the news earlier in the evening that the new royal baby had arrived, Rufus took the chance to congratulate Harry and Meghan and hilariously to tell the most banal anecdote about an encounter with Meghan on a plane. When that fell flat, he gave us the stunning Poses on piano before moving back to guitar and mic stand for a few more songs ans a much funnier anecdote about a Spanish massage. I could relay it – but I think you had to be there.
No Rufus Wainwright set would be complete without Gay Messiah, because to many of his fans that’s just what he is, so happily he played that next, but not before remarking that the next night he’d be playing in a church! I can’t imagine how this song will fly in a venue like that – in fact his set-list might take a few hits! That was followed by another new song, and then Leonard Cohen‘s So Long Marianne. During his lifetime, Cohen expressed gratitude to the Wainwright’s for bringing new life to his music. Not only that, but Leonard was grandfather to Rufus’s daughter Viva whom he fathered with his longtime friend Lorca Cohen. Often when I hear covers of Leonard Cohen’s songs I think they would have been better left well enough alone, but I think Rufus has earned the right, and his version is beautiful, making it his own without mucking about with the original too much,
Back to the piano then, where Rufus is really at his best and Montauk, a beautiful letter to his daughter, asking her to be understanding of her two dads’ foibles when she’s older, and hoping she’ll still want to spend time with them, even when Jorn’s eyesight is failing or when Rufus is playing piano in a kimono and trying to be funny – it’s a vivid snapshot of his imagined future. Another new song, Alone Time, was thrown into the set Rufus admits because while the piano part is really simple, the lyric is really challenging and he needs to learn to sing it properly before the new album comes out in a year and he has to tour it. There was one minor blip in the performance but otherwise it was pretty prefect and it feels like a privilege to be hearing these new songs as it’s been so long since a purely Rufus album.
A song that might be more suitable for airing in St Anne’s Cathedral is Candles. Then without pause, the unmistakable opening bars of Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk raised a cheer from the crowd. This song is one of his most popular wherever he goes but it’s a little bit more special here. There is an air of anticipation, people in the crowd exchanging glances, all of us in the know that we’d all join in as one for those final lines; “I’m just a little bit heiress, a little bit Irish,” and so we did, which caused Rufus to release a broad, beautiful smile. He’s one of us!
A brief exit from the stage and he was back for the two song encore, of which the first was Going to a Town. “I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down, I’m going to a place that has already been disgraced,” his sadness at the state of affairs in his home country is palpable. His exasperation is even clearer tonight when after the well known line “I’m so tired of you America,” he adds, “No shit!” He takes every opportunity to reveal his contempt for Trump’s administration.
The final song of the night was Hallelujah. There have been so many versions of this Leonard Cohen song but I’ve always thought that with the exception of Jeff Buckley‘s interpretation, Rufus’s is my favourite. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
I began this festival week with a feature article on the Wainwright dynasty and their tendency to expose their whole lives through their lyrics. If you read that and then attended this concert I think you’ll agree that given the new songs in Rufus’s repertoire, that tradition is set to continue.