No matter what he elects to sing, Rufus Wainwright does it with passion, pleasure and undeniable pizzazz. His one-of-a-kind talent elevates even the loftiest material and makes lesser compositions worth a listen.
Wrapping up his North American tour at the Keswick Theatre before storming Europe, Wainwright devoted two-thirds of the show to Unfollow The Rules, his first album of original songs in eight years. He never sounded less than exquisite; every stanza offered a thrill, be it when his voice soared to a place where only angels dwell or when he delivered a devilish aside, the barbed kiss of bracing phrasing or even a sardonic sigh.
His supple vocals were nearly matched by his emotional range. “You Ain’t Big,” with its gentle pokes at the liberal oasis of Lawrence, Kan., was a romp with purpose; “Alone Time” served as a poignant reminder of the fragile boundary between isolation and solitude; and if “This One’s For The Ladies (That Lunge!)” occasionally crossed into pomposity, well, that’s part of the package.
But the most tender moments came when Wainwright and his scaled-back band—three musicians, rather than the 10 he envisioned when conceiving how to bring Unfollow The Rules to the stage—strayed from the record.
The newish “Argentina” was as naked a love song as the night could bear, all the more so because it was dedicated to Wainwright’s husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, who was in attendance. At the piano for “Poses,” a number he’s played hundreds of times over the past two decades, Wainwright charmingly blamed a false start on being distracted by thoughts of John Updike while in Pennsylvania.
Bringing tourmate José González up to duet on a pair of songs by Neil Young and Leonard Cohen (“Harvest” and “So Long, Marianne,” respectively), Wainwright subtly staked his claim on his place in the pantheon of idiosyncratic Canadian singers—at least as subtly as you can when your voice is so rich and resonant.
As the last song of the encore, “Going To A Town” (Wainwright’s George W. Bush-era indictment of Canada’s southern neighbor, which packs so much disappointment and frustration into the line “I’m so tired of you, America”) was the pitch perfect way to end both the show and the U.S. run, as politically on point as it was when Wainwright wrote it, if not more.
González’s solo set was more restrained, but his guitar spoke volumes. Pleasant, elegant, even radiant at times, his dark chords flowed like a river. The journey was the point, the destination immutable yet irrelevant. Original compositions like “Void” and “Horizons” were expansive enough to provide a peaceful refuge to whatever passing thoughts came to mind and melted away, and González’s set-ending cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” served as a gentle jolt back to presence.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich