11/10/2005

Rufus Fuckin' Wainwright live: Calvin Theater, Northampton MA 11.4.05


Lori and I saw Roxy Music at th' Greek Theater in LA in '01 and I remember seeing Rufus' name on the posters as the opener. Great, I thought, must be swell to have famous parents so you can actually have a shot. This was, of course, before I adopted my dad Gordon and realized that nowadays the only way interesting artists get any play is if they have famous relatives, i.e. Jeff Buckley, Michael Penn et. al.

Yeah, we had a nice room in Santa Monica so we skipped th' nepotism fest and made the scene when Bryan and th' boys were kicking into "Remake/Remodel". I didn't know from no goddamn Rufus. I'd seen him and his band do an in-the-round performance of "Danny Boy" from his first record on one of those "Austin City Limits" shows and thought it was O.K.

A year later I was desperate enough for new music that wasn't utter fucking ridiculous, insulting fucking tripe that I sprang for "Poses", which we all know is an utter masterpiece. It's the unfettered ambition of it. Love it. Love the Pierre Marchand production, the complexity, the emotional rawness, the level of musicianship, the everything. When he sits solo at the piano, as in "In A Graveyard", his performances invoke an unexpected American-ness, a statelyness that recalls Frost and Whitman.

Last week we got a chance to right a four-year-old-wrong, and found ourselves at th' front of the balcony of the Calvin where I used to go see two-dollar movies in the early 90's.

What a very not-disappointing show this was. Interestingly, my friends, Rufus is green. This I did not expect. But when one realizes that I was already treading th' boards when he was nine and I was eighteen, I guess it makes sense. I did not expect a green performer. But it was a pleasant surprise. I do not say green in a deprecating way; I mean it as a description of an artist who hasn't quite got his cruise-control thing switched on yet. He will, eventually. He'll have to. But for now his voice cracked, he stopped songs in the middle, he made caveats. It was charming.

But for me, at least in th' beginning, it was excruciating. Excruciating. Because I know how it feels. You're up in front of a couple of thousand people, a lot of people are counting on you, you miss a note, the world goes out from under you. You can't leave. You can't disappear. Time stretches out in front of you like a road of slow pain. And the epic head game that is singing under pressure begins. It's all it is- a head game. Mind of matter.

You'll never, ever see me make a mistake on stage. It'll never happen. I'm not saying I'll never make a mistake, Christ knows. But you'll never see it. I'll do something with my hand or my ass or my ax and it'll be like when a magician fucks with your head. You'll know something happened, but you won't know what. I'm not saying this is a good thing, insofar as any artist becoming a professional ever is. Rufus hasn't built his escape hatches yet; he has no way out of a note that he maybe can't hit that night. And he constructed his set in a way that exposed him almost masochistically to the danger.

He began the sickeningly difficult baroque pastiche "Little Sister" alone at the piano, blew a chord, started again, blew a chorus, started again, made it half-way through and blew a note. Made it through. Fine. Problem was, he'd followed "Little Sister" with the epic "Go Or Go Ahead" which features the highest sung note in his entire opus. I remember hearing this Want One song and thinking, "man, he had to wait for a really good voice day to get this one". And it does it over and over.

He managed to carry off the song by sort of whipping his head away from the mic on the tough note and thereafter rallied like a motherfucker. He referred to his voice as a "victorian engine that takes a while to get going" and asserted that it would "last forever" which means he's concerned about its longevity.

Something Rufus doesn't know yet: he has nodules on his vocal chords. Takes one to know one. He's the same age I was when I got mine; early thirties. If you know his work you know there's a scratchy area in his range about a minor third wide. Them's nodules. No biggie; they can be a wonderful addition to th' vocal arsenal.

Anyway, I want to get away from this because I want to give him the glowing review he deserves. I think it's awesome that Rufus is green and a risk-taker. I've always asserted that his greatest selling point is his bravery and this was confirmed. Concerts are tough for me because I have to overcome the crippling jealousy of watching someone do something I could be doing better if I'd taken a right up La Brea at 3:34 PM on August 23rd 1996 instead of a left. And overcome it I do; why ruin my musical experience because the world is shit? It's not my fault. All those fucking years confirm it.

So after getting over my let's see what you've got Mr. Built-In-Gay-Audience-Famous-Parents-Van-Dyke-Parks-Scored-Your-First-Record thing I was able to settle back and enjoy this brilliant, self-deprecating, green genius. Rufus' band, featuring Jeff Buckley alumni on bass 'n' drums, is a tight little machine. And once Rufus won the singing headgame he was a fucking nightingale. The highlights of the show were "14th Street", a predictably fantastic "I Don't Know What It Is", an operatic and sweet "Poses", a solo, stately "This Love Affair", a groovy full-band arrangement of "The Art Teacher", and perhaps the best song of the evening, a solo take of his "Foolish Love" from th' first record.

Rufus' first two albums were scarcely represented at the show. I would've loved to hear some of the early stuff in place of some of the padding from the Want albums ("Peach Trees", "Beautiful Child" etc.) but this is a minor complaint.

So, 2/3rds of the way through the band busts into "Old Whore's Diet" which is the only Rufus song I despise. Awful song. Thing is, they leave the stage to recorded tracks, the lights go down, the piano is moved. I was angling for a cig break but I could see something was afoot. So, the band reenters stage-left, all dressed in robes. Fuckin' Rufus comes out in a robe and a crown of thorns, followed by two roadies dressed as centurions and, natch, dragging a cross upon which Rufus is, natch, crucified. One of them straightens his crown and he gets this creepy half-face mask.

Oh, wait- wait. Before this, they do a fucking hilarious Bugsby-Berkley dance routine to the canned music. It's fucking hysterical. Hysterical. Must have taken forever to learn. Awesome. I thought my ass was going to fall off. THEN Rufus goes up on the cross and they do "Gay Messiah". Fucking brilliant. You know how much I love to lampoon all this Christer shit.

So they go off again and Rufus performs the entire encore set in a bathrobe.

What a great writer, singer and musician. I'm really glad he has famous parents. Guy would've been FUCKED. Trust me on this. I know.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

I missed Michael Penn in Cambridge last month; same with Richard Thompson at the Somerville Theater. I'm so out of it. Must ... get ... out ... more ...

yxwhemp - The Industrial Strength Hemp

8:35 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Damn, I'm so jealous for a bit of culture. One day i'm actually going to see someone i love in concert, if they ever decide to play the backwoods of rural oz.

Ha, how come you two luck out and get nodules when I get second degree chemical burns on my vocal chords, according to the doctor who shoved a camera down there yesterday.

Sigh... The Angel of Music hates my guts.

And built in gay audience? I've yet to talk to a gay guy in australia who even knows who Rufus is. They like dance music. That's IT. (I'll spare you the overheard conversation last week about my songwriting abilities by a bunch of fags who didn't recognise me, but man it *killed*).

10:29 PM  
Blogger Pinko Punko said...

I only have his first and I never got past the single ("April Fools") but the brilliance of that song and the suicidal opera divas that populate the video. God damn. What a stud.

11:20 PM  

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