Rufus Wainwright - Birmingham Symphony Hall
Due to the coming-up-to-Crimbo traffic congestion, the support act is already underway when we reach the venue. Because the Symphony Hall is one of those rule-abiding swanky places, we have to wait until the end of a track before we can enter the auditorium and take our seats. Thankfully, Scott Matthews is only one song in, meaning I get to see a little treasure in action for the remainder of his set. The comparisons to Jeff Buckley have been plentiful and with good cause, as Matthews voice fills the space, backed only by strings and his own guitar - oh, and a harmonica on one song. The short set comprises of tracks lifted from his debut, Passing Stranger, and are accomplished songs for someone who is just out of the gate. Indeed, as he himself acknowledges, tonight serves as a 'semi'-homecoming with the singer's origins being in Wolverhampton, a stone's throw away from the city centre of Brum. Songs such as the Ivor Novello-winning Elusive prove that this one is a local talent to savour. He's made a splash Stateside by soundtracking the controversial indie flick Shortbus and, if he continues to pen award-baiting songs, he could soon be as prolific and respected as the man he is supporting.
And what a man. Before he's even performed his opening number Release the Stars, which acts as a love letter to old Hollywood and a rousing big-band Motown number to boot, Rufus Wainwright has already made more than one hell of an impression. Set to a backdrop of the American flag and two very sparkly glitterballs, Rufus and the seven members of his all-male band hit the stage wearing typically colourful and broach-clad threads. Wainwright's bold fashion sense is just one reason to consider seeing him live, his nearing-extensive back catalogue and stunning voice overtaking frills and eye-catching suit jackets.
The political Going to a Town, lifted from the Release the Stars album, doesn't pack the punch it intends (what anti-Bush song can, after so so many of them?) but an early solo showcase is perhaps the finest live performance I've seen all year. Poised and ready at his piano, Wainwright brings out an old hit with Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, made all the more endearing by slight slip-ups on the keys, and then impresses with the intricate piano of the odd Tulsa, a song that details a night spent in a bar with Brandon Flowers. Closing this three-song solo section is a pitch-perfect performance of The Art Teacher, one of his finest examples of songwriting skill (in it, he imagines himself as a young girl enamoured by her art teacher) where wit and wrenching regret collide, Wainwright's vocal and piano underpinned by the scarcest of French horn.
Needless to say, when the band return, the standards are kept very high. Tiergarten, the mid-tempo new single, is pleasingly full-bodied when performed live, and the horn section play an integral role to the Bacharach-esque Rules and Regulations. In fact, all the band members have their time to shine (unsuprising, really, when the show lasts for over two-and-a-half hours); for instance, a memorable flute solo features on Sansoucci while elaborate drums carry Do I Dissapoint You. The latter track, quite possibly the most ambitious of Wainwright's career, as well as the one that leans toward his operatic tendencies most obviously, doesn't entirely translate its ambitious scope onto the stage. However, it's a goal that is missed just barely, Wainwright and his band deserving all the credit in the world for even attempting to deliver such a complex piece of work to a live audience when most songwriters could only dream of writing something so epic. On the humorously-titled Between My Legs, they return to 'perfect ten' territory, this rockier song allowing the eleccy guitars to get a look-in. Some random Birmingham lass gets to participate, too! In an inspired move, Wainwright has chosen locals from each tour date to deliver the spoken-word epilogue to the song, and tonight's lucky winner more than earns the approving crowd applause for her determined effort, as well as her sheer bravery in standing before such a packed auditorium.
After this burst of energy, a fifteen minute intermission interrupts the flow of the show but is entirely worth it when, after a quick cozzy change, Wainwright returns to the stage in his very own lederhosen. This kookiness gives way to campness, Wainwright choosing this point of the show to bring out two of his Judy Garland covers. Yup, a gay man doing Judy Garland covers. Way original, right? For those who aren't aware, Wainwright delighted and puzzled fans last year when it was announced he would be recreating Garland's acclaimed Carnegie Hall show. I won't lie, I was one of the doubters. Critical acclaim was the response, though, and now Wainwright is set to release one of his identikit performances on DVD just in time for the Coca-Cola holiday. Letting one of his band members replace him on the piano, Wainwright takes to the mic and, utilising his soaring and crystal-clear voice, delivers mesmerising performances of A Foggy Day (In London Town) and If Love Were All. Never, as a young twentysomething who likes to think he has a pretty 'cool' (whatever that means) taste in music, did I think I would be exploring Garland territory through the work of one of my favourite songsmiths. Guess that's changed; that DVD is on my Crimbo list already, and anyone unfamiliar with Wainwright's work might do well to take a chance on it.
Of course, Wainwright has his own repertoire to get through, meaning more Judy songs will have to wait. Unfortunately for long-term fans, though, the next part of the show relies heavily, as the first half did, on songs from the new album. This isn't to say the show is a lost cause at this point; Slideshow is just bombastic enough, aided by lights that inspire one to go 'wow', and Nobody's Off the Hook manages to move even without the string section that makes the recorded version so spine-tingling. The lull of the evening comes with Not Ready to Love, a measured (i.e. dull) ballad that is only memorable for how Wainwright segues into the titular first line, following a shout from an audience member that 'We love you, Rufus!' This improv highlights how, throughout the night, Wainwright is a charming personality who is obviously at ease with his fans. At one point, he even admits to his 'scandalous' dislike of Harry Potter. This, coupled with a captivating mic-free rendition of an old Irish folk song that silences the audience completely, makes up for the lack of old favourites during this part of the night.
Saying that, we do get Beautiful Child and The Consort dotted amongst the newies but I would have much preferred Rebel Prince to the latter, a song that doesn't even come alive until its final stretch. I feel a bit ungrateful, having waited so long to catch Wainwright in concert and then moaning that the setlist was a bit bloated. However, the extensive running time really could have done with a bit of a trim. Thankfully, tracks from his first four albums seem to have been reserved for the big show-stopping closer and encore.
A jubilant 14th Street becomes an extended wall-of-sound jam here, Rufus leaving the band members to show off their individual skills and exit one by one, until only a sole banjo is being plucked by the last man standing. When Wainwright re-emerges, he is wearing a fluffy white robe that doesn't have enough time to puzzle, as no time is wasted in bringing out the big guns. I Don't Know What It Is and Poses are worth the wait but it is Danny Boy, the only song to be played off Wainwright's self-titled debut, that is truly remarkable. It would have been nice to hear more material from the 1998 album (Follish Love and April Fools especially), and yet with just this one track - as well as the earlier rendition of his lost Moulin Rouge effort, Leaving for Paris no. 2 - Wainwright proves he is at his best when he's being a heart-on-sleeve, old-fashioned romantic.
When the robe comes off, however, Wainwright leaves no doubt in our minds that he is a man of many facets. Looking quite comfortable in a double-breasted tuxedo jacket and seamed black stockings (!), he completes the 'Judy drag' look with diamond earrings, fedora and (you guessed it) heels. This is all in aid of a razzle-dazzle performance of Get Happy, Wainwright once again completely winning over his crowd as he prances the length of the stage, his seven band members transformed in tuxedos and acting as backup dancers. After such an unexpected treat, it is no surprise that Wainwright rounds out the excess with his signature tune, Gay Messiah. Strumming his guitar, still very much in drag, Wainwright sings his own modernised take on the second coming. It's all very rude and whimsical, featuring puns on the word 'head' and people being baptised in bodily fluids, and is quite simply the perfect end to the night. It's a song that promises a more hopeful future, and with Wainwright planning his opera next (told you he's excessive!), the future can't come too soon.