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Rufus Wainwright at the Beacon Theatre

Someday, I hope to see Rufus Wainwright give a concert at Carnegie Hall, with no special lighting effects and no amplification, except maybe just for him and the backup vocals. I want to hear what he has put on his CDs, only live.

What I don't want is to hear Rufus when he is singing for the second night in a row. Last night, I heard, he claimed to have a cold. But he was in good voice tonight, except for his top. We're talking opera problems. The boy needs his sleep, just like all the other High Caesars. His singing three encores, the last of which was the hardly undemanding "Beautiful Child," made me almost cross.

Do you think I'm disappointed? Don't be daft. I'm just moving some criticism up front to control the gushing. It was great to hear him run through so many of the songs that I've gotten to know quite well lately. It was great. It was great. It was - I don't know how to write about rock concerts, because the quality of the sound is always so much worse than it is on recordings. When I go to a classical concert, I listen for the things that don't come across on recordings. The moments of excitement that you have to see, feel, breathe. Rock concerts impose huge compromises on the charts and then turn up the amps, drowning out most of the fine lines. At the risk of sounding like Margaret Dumont, I beg Rufus to take his taste for opera more seriously. Keep the amps if he must, but turn them down. "Inner voices"!

So the pleasure of hearing songs that I love sung in the same room by their creator was dampened by the dumbings-down that rock tradition requires. I expected this, however. I haven't forgotten the first big rock concert that I ever went to; it put me off such events for years. (Maria Muldaur in 1974, I think it was. The old Houston Coliseum - is it still there? "Midnight at the Oasis" - obliterated by noise.) I didn't go to this evening's concert to appreciate Mr Wainwright's art. I did want to hear him sing in the same room, yes, but as happens in the vocal world, he was suffering adversities and did not sound his best. Still think I'm disappointed? Only insofar as I didn't hear anything I hadn't heard before. But setting music aside, it was a gripping evening. I got to see Rufus with his public. That's almost a little too exciting.

In interview after interview (not that I'm reading them all under a hair drier), Mr Wainwright claims to be incapable of attaching himself to someone else for the medium-long term. This worries me. He needs a lot of protection, and not the kind that you pay for. He may be our best look at Mozart's life. It's obvious that he was a precocious little musician who learned very early that performance was a safe ticket to approbation, whereas talking - words - could get him into trouble. So, like some other loquacious little boys that I've known, he spoke at the speed of light and tried to fit four paragraphs into one sentence. For all his flamboyance, I think that he is quite shy. But as for tormented childhood, "Dinner at Eight" aside, I think that his - before puberty, that is - must have been full of extraordinary fun. He and his sisters had to have put on great little entertainments. We had one of them tonight. It was a riot. It was a diet. "The Old Whore's Diet" - a song that may take some listeners a while to like, because it's built on the Bolero model. A little bit of material is stretched to its maximum elasticity. In the middle of the recorded song, at the end of Want Two, there's a moody gypsy violin solo. During this solo - did I neglect to say that it was presented as the last number of the concert? (which it was not by any means) - most of the performers, including Mr Wainwright, left the stage. Presently they reappeared in white robes, suitable for Baptism. They arranged themselves in formation and proceeded to imitate (mock) every backup dance group, every black girl group, and every June Taylor Dancer, with their arms. It was very funny, but it was not as campy as some might have thought it; rather, it was the ridicule of children. Rufus got his ensemble to put on a show for the grown-ups, and they complied winningly. At the heart of the luxuriant decadence of Rufus Wainwright, there is a quick little boy who has known how to work a crowd since he was seven, and possibly younger.

And that's very appealing. There is nothing like an old pro who happens to be under thirty-five.

What I took away from this evening's concert was a pleasant sense that Rufus Wainwright, the performer, is still a child prodigy. Rufus Wainwright, the composer, as I already knew - and despite his dishy protestations - is very much a man. It's time for the man to make sure that the child gets his rest.  

PS The last time I went to the Beacon Theatre, it was a dump. That can't have been too long ago - the Bonnie Raitt/Keb' Mo' tour. The place was Dinge City. Mais voilà! The gilt has been regilded, the lobby is grand, the seats have been replaced, and everything has been restored to spiffitude.

PPS Regina Spektor opened the concert. She is an extremely good pianist with a compositional style that it will require further hearings to appraise - typical for me. Don't count on me to spot geniuses! She has a nice voice; its combination of timbres reminded me hugely of Stacy Kent, despite all the differences in material. Ms Spektor's song, "Wallet," is immediately affecting. Ms NOLA was quite taken with her. My response was positive, but taken under advisement.

PPPS Rufus did throw us a nice dog bone: "It's nice to be home."


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Last Saturday, at a headphones station in Barnes and Noble, I listened to snippets of every single Rufus W song from every album he has released. With the exception of Cigarettes and Chocolate, there was nothing I wanted to hear again. I think sometimes that the children of performers are geared to perform, but may not have the oil or the purpose to perform well. Sorry, but I just don't feel him.

I don't think it's possible to appreciate anything in snippets, much less appreciate anything in a Barnes and Nobles with headphones. Rufus Wainwright is a treat as an urban soundtrack, walking down the streets of Manhattan, heading home to Brooklyn, enduring Philadelphia, riding bikes in New Hampshire. His soaring voice is not something you can write off by a quick listen in a public space. Farmboyz, I hope you have the pleasure of enjoying Rufus Wainwright's music in a more inviting setting. You are missing out on one of life's rare treats.

And I know I said the word treat several times, but I am still reeling from the sheer joy of last night's performance.

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