I thought of Nora Jones tonight as I sat in the audience for Rufus Wainwright’s Glasgow show: a lot of people love her, flock to see her, but I’m not entirely sure why. That’s not to suggest the attention is not well-deserved, but to characterize — if Norah Jones were a whispering soothsayer, Rufus Wainwright is the shamanic voice of a cello. But I don’t entirely get either, yet.
First, I must admit that I have no active knowledge of Wainwright or much of his work. I attended tonight’s opening of his new tour because a dear friend, both of us expat New Yorkers, sent me an email about another phase of Rufus’ coming of age. Parts of my life seem to coincide with his, and on more than one occasion other friends have pointed this out, for example our New York burn-outs — aesthetically differently, but that’s another story. His is in the New York Times.
I’m also very aware that Wainwright is dear friends with some of my dear friends who remain in New York City – he gigs and plays with quite a few of the old Squeezebox! crowd. Somehow I didn’t get on the ‘Rufus’ bandwagon, perhaps I was busy bouncing back from the burn. Nonetheless, a dear friend here invited me to Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall for the show.
I love discovering new work during live performances: no expectations. Before the start, an announcer came on stage and asked the audience, at Wainwright’s request, “not to applaud until after the [entire] set and Rufus has left the stage. His exit is part of the performance”.
What followed was Wainwright entering in a feather-collared black drapey outfit with a train that stretched far behind. He sang a set of songs with varied tempos and depth, accompanied by a unique piece of film of his blackened eye opening and closing, in different sizes and positioning across a giant backdrop screen.
To my delight, the first set was very conceptual, a choreography of the video, Wainwright’s body movements and the sound. It was not at all what I, nor the Glasgow crowd had expected. To be honest, I had carried some trepidation in with me: Wainwright’s voice sounds the monotonous to me in much of his Pop work. This piece however, transcended Pop.
For the first time, I was able to understand a voice described as ‘an instrument’ – a term which has always seemed highly technical. Tonight, during this dramatic set, I was able to forget words and listen to sounds, and I then likened Wainwright’s instrument to a cello, and the piece made sense. One line that did come forth and stick with me was something like “I don’t know what to do with a Rose, What do I do with you?” (Incidentally, I just sent my grandmother, who has cancer and is very close to passing over, a painting I did of a yellow rose).
During the intermission, I heard ‘not what we expected’ murmurs throughout the crowd, and I, for one, was happy that people who’d come to hear a Pop show got some art and music from a clearly classically trained performer. Great. By any means necessary.
The second half, however, was not so successful. This time, Wainwright sauntered out onstage in a pair of jeans, white t-shirt and arty-style vest covered in patchwork something or other — too casual, the contrast of appearances alone was jarring to me. He’d earned the respect of this first-timer with the first set, then proceeded to throw me off an artistic cliff.
While addressing the audience, Wainwright acknowledged his need to ‘dig out of a hole’ from the first set. I disagree. To follow a genius conceptual piece which triumphed in challenging the faithful, with a scaled-down run-through of songs in the style of an old American Pop show ‘Puttin’ on the Hits’ – was disappointing. His voice went from innovative to unnerving, and upon making a mistake (fair enough) even Wainwright commented “There’s something in the air tonight… …shards of glass”. Perhaps, but some continuity in the show could have guided us through the sharp jungle.
Wainwright’s classical training, and focus for the performance seemed to return in his encore set. When singing a song related to Scotland and taught to him by his recently departed mother, his posture changed and became more attentive, and notes began flowing smoothly.
We all have our processes. One thing I admire Wainwright for is his ability to make mistakes on stage and keep going – ‘anything worth doing is worth doing imperfectly’ as the old saying goes, although one time seemed a bit staged for comic relief.
Another rough spot seemed to be with a song where he was singing about being drunk, (although he, like me and many of our mutual friends, have traded the booze boat for other things, namely a life), while reassuring the audience “I’m not drunk” — sometimes it’s hard to look back without staring.
In the end the one thing I really identified with was Wainwright himself, a man who’s as seen many transitions as I have of the same lusciously dirty nooks and crannies of Manhattan into squeaky-clean real estate ventures for corrupt politicians and developers, not to mention greedy purple universities. And after 8 years of a war criminal for a President, and now dangerous people like Sarah Palin being crowned charlatan-of-the-hour, Wainwright’s song ‘I’m so tired of you America’ struck deep chords within me.
While I wish he’d lose some of the grating Valley-Girl accent, I admire his tenacity in general, and after the first set tonight, may very well check out his opera if given the chance. I enjoyed much of the show, but can’t fault Wainwright for being in tune with what seems to be the rest of the humanity right now: struggling to figure out exactly which way to go. But isn’t that what art is all about? Struggle, trial and change?