Sometimes Believing Is Better Than Seeing—A Mixed Bag of an Evening with Rufus Wainwright and Company
Cabaret act extraordinaire Rufus Wainwright and his merry band of musical progeny hit the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan on February 20, 2002 night for a show of highs, lows, and a whole lot of in-betweens. Not that too many in the audience seemed to notice the difference—as the pinup boy of legions of drama queen lads and lassies, the 28-year-old Wainwright has a fan base whose fervor matches that of lovers of ‘N Sync and Britney nearly scream for scream, and judging from the screams on this night, they got exactly what they wanted. But maybe they should have wanted a little something more.
Opener Teddy Thompson set the emotional tone for the evening when he declared after asking the audience how they were doing during his short set, “That’s enough—let’s talk about me.” The son of cult hero singer-songwriters Linda and Richard Thompson, Teddy Thompson also does the singer-songwriter thing. In Teddy’s case, this means playing solo guitar and singing rather self-involved numbers at the top of his pleasantly husky voice, all the while breaking them up with rather self-involved audience patter (which, because it’s in a British accent, comes off more appealingly than it would otherwise—British accents tend to do that, I find). He closed with an almost-comically drawn-out cover of the greatest kiss-off song of all time, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, that, while exquisitely executed, made you understand why Teddy’s song lover might not have been particularly attentive—he/she could never get a word in edgewise.
After an absurdly long set-up period (especially absurd given that everything was already set up before the opening act came on), Wainwright’s band came out—featuring his sister Martha Wainwright on backup, Teddy Thompson on guitar, Jeff Hill on bass, Butch Norton from the Eels on drums, and John Ballinger on just about everything else—followed shortly afterward by Rufus himself. The audience literally squealed in delight before he had even played a note, so even when Wainwright (looking more than a little like Keith Partridge in his tight-fitting open-necked shirt and feathered hair) kicked off with a rather rough version of “Grey Gardens”, they lapped it up. And they continued to lap it up throughout the show, regardless of its musical merits or, at times, lack thereof.
Later in the set, in a bit of geographic pandering, Rufus mentioned that he had spent time in Michigan as a youth at the arts camp Interlochen. A fitting reference since, at times, particularly in the first third of the show, that’s precisely what this concert seemed like: a music camp featuring a troupe of youngsters—with loads of talent and very little inner critic—getting up on stage and making a whole lot of noise. Some of this “noise” can be blamed on the poor acoustics of the venue (a place that, while lovely to look at, has made even Brian Wilson’s should-be-patented interpretation of the Wall of Sound come off as sheer cacophony), but the rest of the fault can probably be placed on putting a bunch of solo performers on a stage as a backup band and expecting them not to each try to put on their own little showcase. Heck, even the drummer seemed to be begging for attention by donning a cowboy hat for some of the numbers. “Evil Angel”, introduced amusingly by Rufus as “the crazy rock song—think Pittsburgh,” was the nadir of this egocentric approach, with Rufus stopping and giggling over and over while the band blithely played on, Martha caterwauling her throat raw, and every instrument seemingly out of step with the others.
When the band stepped back right after this and Rufus did his me-and-my-piano bit on “In a Graveyard” and “La Complainte de la Butte”, and his me-and-my-microphone bit for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, things took a decided turn for the better. In those moments he finally managed to convey the breathtaking intimacy of his recordings and call more attention to the performance than the performer. When his full band returned for a rendition of one of his father Loudon Wainwright’s songs, the good vibes lingered. With Rufus, Martha, and Teddy Thompson trading off verses and the band lending subtle accompaniment, “One Man Guy” (ironically, an anthem of individualism) provided the most nuanced full band performance and a highlight of the night, with everyone taking their turn and no one else’s.
Unfortunately, this harmoniousness did not remain consistently through to the end, though late set highlights included Wainwright’s note-perfect cover of “Across the Universe” and a hip-gyrating encore of the hedonistic “Instant Pleasure”. Although Wainwright and company played nearly every song from his latest album, Poses, a few songs from his first album, Rufus Wainwright, and threw in a bunch of covers and soundtrack hits, the whole show had a rushed feeling, fueled by Rufus’ hyperactive stage patter (most of which was barely intelligible over the audience’s own hyperactive response) and manic conducting style (at times he was practically running from piano to guitar to microphone to start a song). There were also screw-ups a-plenty, with distracting false starts, flubs, and missed passages in at least a quarter of the numbers—sloppiness which stood in sharp contrast to the impeccable production quality of his recordings. Perhaps the constant references to their break-of-dawn taping for The Rosie O’Donnell Show the next day provided the reason for this hurry-up offense—the show needed to be in the can early so the band could get their beauty sleep.
Uneven or not, the spectacle was clearly relished by the highly vocal audience, who continually wept, screamed, and called out with those avowals of love and lust that must be so thoroughly commonplace to the golden boy by now, and even gave him a standing ovation at the end of the regular set and each encore. Wainwright was gracious in his acceptance of all this adoration, and his feigned surprise when he came out for his encores was even pretty convincing. And therein lies the key to his live performance, especially on a night where so much seemed to be off. Rufus Wainwright is the quintessential performer, able to make every audience believe that they are “the best” audience and that their show is the “most fun” show of the tour, when really they are just another night in an endless string. On this night, I guess, believing was better than seeing.