There are a myriad of different types of live albums in the music industry, many of them easily differentiated by the reason for their release: some for shamelessly commercial goals, some that are more artistic in pursuit. Given our dear Rufus Wainwright’s tendency for unabashed vanity, it would be forgivable for fans to fear one of the former releases, glitzed up hastily by his label and shipped around to rake in a few more dollars during a period where Wainwright seems to be concentrating on endeavors other than his pop music career. Thankfully, and to our pleasant surprise, Milwaukee at Last!!! falls neatly into the latter category, a live record that serves to illustrate the strengths of Wainwright’s last release from 2007, Release the Stars.
The most exciting part about Wainwright’s musical identity has always been the meeting of his two distinct personalities, which gives him such an unpredictable flair: the piano-pop artisan, teeming with hooks and a knack for stylish, impish wit, and the musical maven, overflowing with ornate musical backdrops and clever, sprawlingly overzealous arrangements. Sometimes he plays it a little harder in one direction, as on Release the Stars, which found our flamboyant showman indulging his operatic whims with languid, drawn out suites and swelling string sections that nearly drowned out his delicate songs. What held that record together was the thrill of hearing an ambitious craftsman flourishing in a direction he obviously held so much affection for and, of course, that lustrous voice, which could sound dizzying and seductive singing the phonebook.
For as enjoyable as it was to witness this growth, albums with such operatic underpinnings tend to sound stuffy and constrained in studio settings, and so Milkaukee at Last!!! reveals its purpose, and it’s a useful one: the opportunity to correct and showcase these showtunes in an environment that allows them to breathe and make their way skyward without restraint. It’s a pretty neat trick for those who weren’t able to let Release the Star‘s quirky, elaborate charms sink their way in, allowing Rufus to properly expand on that album’s aesthetic in a more complementary musical atmosphere. We’re provided with a clutch of songs from that album (seven out of ten, on the single-disc edition) and a couple musical staples (Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All”, from his Rufus Does Judy show, and a version of the Irish song, “Macushla”), before it’s capped off with a fan favorite to round things out nicely (“Gay Messiah”).
With a swinging live band — which includes Jeff Hill on bass, Jack Petruzzelli and Gerry Leonard on guitar, C.J. Camerieri on trumpet, Will Vinson on saxophone, Louis Schwadron on French horn, and Matt Johnson on drums — and with his thrusting zest of a swagger, soaking up glowing adoration from the Pabst Theatre’s sold-out crowd, Rufus does justice to this material and then some. Performed in this setting, we’re able to experience the nuances and the subtleties that were nearly strangled out in their studio form. No longer tied down by fussy production or straddled precision, Rufus and his band — who should be commended for being fluid enough to keep these songs supple yet grounded enough to give them gravitas and prevent them from floating off — are able to illustrate the strength of his songwriting, the savviness of the flashy undertones, and the richness of the arrangements. The coupling of “Not Ready to Love” and “Slideshow” offers a breathtaking combination of heartbreak and grandeur that bests its studio carnation by a mile. The cover of “Macushla”, with its woozy brass and the aural discomfort in its enunciation, offers a welcome respite from all of the towering splendor on display. “Going to a Town” (whose refrain of “I’m so tired of you, America” proves to be even more appropriate now than when it was recorded) manages to sound simultaneously restless and weary, yet barks by charismatically with its snarky bite and genuine exasperation.
If anyone is qualified to deliver a live album that matches — and at point bests — its source material, it’s Rufus Wainwright, whose dramatic bombast is lovingly tempered by his facile propensity for beautiful arrangements and torchy romance. It would be difficult to call an expansion on a previous title a masterpiece, and to be fair this document does lack the nature of surprise that Wainwright’s studio records consistently afford, but it’s rather simple to refer to it for what it is: a resounding success, equally useful to both casual fans and ardent devotees. He may be an acquired taste — with a salacious grandiosity that’s bound to be divisive among music fans — but as Milwaukee at Last!!! proudly displays, Rufus Wainwright is one of pop music’s most rewarding and indelible voices for those who give him the time and chance to let his charms enchant you.