One thing you should know about Rufus Wainwright: he’s absolutely devastating live. He’s no stranger to studio technique, as his albums will attest, but on stage is where this drama queen clearly feels at home. It is no doubt due to his heritage. The boy is music royalty; his father is folk legend Loudon Wainwright III (who just successfully sued Robbie Williams) and fellow folkie Katie McGarrigle is his mum. He’s not content with the cult status that his parents had, though. Rufus says, half jokingly, that he wants to sell out and be a superstar. While baroque pop by blatantly gay singers is not exactly lighting up the Billboard charts, Rufus Wainwright has the talent and the savvy to go farther than he peers would have dared. And if he keeps putting on shows like the one he did Friday night at the Vic Theater in Chicago, he may just get his sellout wish.
The night started with a very entertaining set by Wainwright bandmate and fellow musical progeny Teddy Thompson, son of Richard “Shoot Out The Lights” Thompson. Teddy, who looks like Glenn Tilbrook’s kid brother, sings simple, Freedy Johnston-ish folk rock that owes more to Americana than anything from his native England. The real showstopper was a fab cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, though his originals were just as well received. Thompson made a lot of friends at this show, myself included.
But then came Rufus.
With shoulder length mussed up hair, faded jeans and a white T-shirt, and backed by a five piece band (including sister Martha), Wainwright warmed up with a subdued version of “Grey Gardens” from his latest album Poses. For the first two verses, it was Wainwright on piano backed by Martha, Teddy and his bassist, at which point the whole band kicked in and they did the song as it exists on the album from start to finish. “You’re a hot piece of ass!” one very excited woman shouted from the audience. Rufus barely missed a beat, firing back, “Thanks, though I feel more like a cold piece of salami.”
This may signify the most intriguing aspect of Wainwright’s popularity. The man is a sex symbol, yet he’s also a complete and total queen. Most male sex symbols who may be gay feel compelled to hide their sexuality. Rufus never cared enough to bother, and if anything, it’s made him even more desirable. Wainwright concerts aren’t gay shows, like other gay artists’ concerts turn out to be; the Pet Shop Boys show I attended in 1999 was 95% male, by comparison. Wainwright’s concert was about half male, half female, half straight, half gay. I saw lots of guys there with their girlfriends. The last gay artist to have that kind of crossover was Melissa Etheridge. Before she came out of the closet. This bodes well, methinks.
Wainwright followed the opener with the Japanese-tinged “Greek Song”, and then sent the crowd rollicking with “California”, the Hit That Should Have Been (and May Still Be). He then told one of his trademark hilarious stories, this one about a chatty cabbie in DC (“What do you do?” “I’m a singer.” “Yo’ not a singa! Michael Jackson’s a singa! What’s your name?” “Rufus.” Yo’ name’s not Rufus!”) that had the crowd in stitches. I’ve never heard anyone tell funnier stories in concert than Rufus Wainwright, with the possible exception of Henry Rollins.
Wainwright pulled an incredible stunt midway through the first set, turning the brooding “Evil Angel” into Black Sabbath Goth rock, and going shirtless for the last third of the song to boot (to much fanfare). When the crowd begged him to keep the shirt off, he replied, “Talk to the bear,” referring to the teddy bear a fan threw up onstage earlier. Wainwright showcased his soundtrack contributions as well, playing “Complainte de la Butte” (Moulin Rouge), his haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleujah” (Shrek), and using “Instant Pleasure” (Big Daddy) as his first encore. The biggest of all, though, was his star turn on “Across The Universe”, first heard at the John Lennon tribute and then later appearing on the I Am Sam soundtrack. Martha was a bit too eager here, overdoing her part by a mile in the last chorus. I secretly wished Moby would come out and sing the low vocal like they did together at the Lennon tribute, but alas, not to be.
The one truly remarkable thing about Wainwright’s concerts is that, for as open as he is about his sexuality, his shows are not defined by it. He just may be the most liberated performer in music right now, and his concerts reflect it. Thank heavens.