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Rufus Wainwright at Satalla

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I discovered Rufus Wainwright on a compilation that Ms NOLA burned for me earlier this year. I was listening to it while surfing the Blogosphere, and everything sounded okay until I was quite suddenly gripped. And I was even more gripped by the song that followed. Somehow none of text information had made it onto the disc, so I had to wait for Ms NOLA could tell me that the songs that I'd fallen so hard for were "Oh What A World" and "I Don't Know What It Is," from Mr Wainwright's CD Want One.  

At the beginning of the summer, I put Want One and Want Two away. Not literally; I just needed some time away from the overwhelming phenomenon of Rufus Wainwright. I didn't know which to fear more, intoxication or overexposure. And I had two problems. The first was his flamboyance. I couldn't decide how to take this. If it was just gay spectacle, I would inevitably tire of it and wind up embarrassed by my poor taste. The second problem was his eccentric enunciation. Most of his songs turn out to be incomprehensible to me until I've seen the lyrics in print. On the hunch that, after a sufficient break, these questions would be cleared up the moment I heard Mr Wainwright's work again, I gave it a rest.

The hunch turned out to be correct. The next time that I heard Rufus Wainwright was last Saturday night, and I was in the same room, along with a few hundred other New Yorker Festival goers, at the world-music club Satalla, near Madison Square Park. With his song, "The Art Teacher," he convinced me that his flamboyance is far more musical than sexual (if that makes any sense), and that his decadent way with words is not a problem, because his voice is pure gold.

Maybe I was helped along to these conclusions by the conversation that Mr Wainwright had with Andy Young before he moved to the piano. The event had been billed as a "conversation," coyly offering no assurance that music would be played, and I was prepared not to be disappointed if it wasn't. (Of course, I knew from the moment that I walked into the club and saw the piano that there would be music. And now I would know to anticipate it just on the strength of the artist's zest for performing.) The topic that kept coming up, again and again, in the interview and in the Q&A alike was - opera. I was ready for this, having read a recent Anthony Tommasini story about Mr Wainwright in the Times. Mr Tommasini does not write about popular music. The point of his piece was to report that Rufus Wainwright not only loves opera but knows about it. I'd had an earlier tip from the DVD, Rufus Wainwright Live at the Fillmore, a fantastic freebie thrown in to the Want Two jewel box. How does this open? With, of all things, "Absence," the third of Hector Berlioz's six songs, Les nuits d'été. It is likely that most of the audience at the Fillmore took "Absence" to be a Wainwright composition, larkily tossed off in French. There was not a touch of "classical" in the performance, but unlike other refittings of classical music for popular venues, this one was utterly true to the spirit of the original. I was breathtaken.

"Opera needs me," Mr Wainwright said more than once on Saturday night. We'll see. The possibility of operatic innovation seems as immured in stone as Excalibur, and in "Gay Messiah," the singer proposes himself as John the Baptist, not Arthur. But there is something about his great big voice and his great big "temperament" that bodes well for something both new and satisfying. (Country music might also in danger of upheaval; Mr Wainwright scampishly observed that it's in need of "gay dust." For my part, I think that a new opera is more likely.) To tell the truth, Rufus Wainwright is a "popular" singer only insofar as he makes use of pop instruments and pop tropes. His compositional rigor, his eagerness to bend forms to suit his material, and his fearless commentary are all more characteristic of composers like Philip Glass than they are of Mr Wainwright's great admirer, Elton John. I ought to add that his senses of harmony and melodic invention are like no one else's. That can also be said of Elvis Costello, but I think that Rufus Wainwright is more powerfully drawn to that suspect article, beauty. So am I.

Rufus Wainwright is a very handsome young and talented gay man who, thanks, perhaps, to all of that, combined with some family history, has already been through a couple of personal hells. There is no denying a muted but persistent bitterness in his work, although it is more a flavor than an emotion. For the time being, he carries himself with a reckless swagger that seems to invite catastrophe - but the act is so finished that it's more ironic than worrisome. He is a great entertainer who may someday become a real legend, simply for having survived. If he hasn't done so already, I hope that he finds a nice boyfriend who will take good care of him. Rufus Wainwright is dangerously gifted.  

Cleaning out my bag on Monday, I came across the flier that was handed out as we trooped into Satalla. And acted on it pronto. The best seats available by the time I interacted with an excluvely robotic Ticketmaster were in Row P. I grabbed.

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Comments

I cannot wait for more Rufus! And Regina Spektor. I need to do some investigation.

I will have to write more about Rufus later. But of him I will never have enough.

I was introduced to Rufus Wainwright via a friend who sent me a copy of the soundtrack from the film The Myth of Fingerprints, which includes Rufus singing On the Banks of the Wabash, as well as Vainement, ma bien-aimée from Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys (along with a track of the same aria sung by Beniamino Gigli). I'm in total agreement with Ms. NOLA-I can't get enough of Rufus and I'm envious that you will see him in concert, particularly after seeing the DVD of his Fillmore performance. And I'm doubly envious if you will also be seeing Regina Spektor perform.


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