Rufus Wainwright - Birmingham Symphony Hall

Following the extravagance of the Release the Stars tour (see here), self-styled 'prima donna' Rufus Wainwright returns to the UK with just a piano and that remarkable voice in tow. It's been a while since he's performed an extensive tour without backing from a full band, so what to make of the solo setup? No frills. No bombast. No applause?

After a stern Scottish compere walks onstage to deliver Rufus's request that there be no clapping during the first half's 'song cycle', the lights are lowered and a hush descends upon the Symphony Hall. From stage right, a dark figure emerges and marches slowly to the grand piano, long black cape trailing behind him. No-one mutters a word, or so much as breathes, as Rufus takes to his stool and his fingers launch into the opening piano riff of Who Are You New York? At its completion, his request respectfully fulfilled, Rufus takes a quick sip of water and then continues to play new album All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu in its entirety.

I won't lie: it's pretty hard-going. It's also masterful and, while trying to sidestep any unnecessary hyperbole, frequently beautiful. The new album is the product of Rufus's grief after having lost mother, folk singer Kate Mcgarrigle, to cancer earlier this year; thereby, it follows that Act I of this show is a requiem of sorts to his mother, and why the request for quiet is understandable and in no way the whim of a pretentious diva. The eerie silence during the brief pauses between songs only adds to the funereal atmosphere of the show, and also makes it somewhat uncomfortable - at times, I certainly feel like I'm a voyeur witnessing a human being fully embracing his pain. Despite the sadness of the work, it's obviously a cathartic experience for Rufus to purge his hearts and guts with these songs every night, and so the audience's complicity becomes necessary. Against an arty projection of tearful black-lidded eyes (of the sort that can be found on the new album cover), songs that are often unbearably personal, such as Martha, sit alongside a trio of Shakespearian sonnets, an aria from last year's opera (Les Feux D'Artifice T'Appellent) and, in Give Me What I Want... and The Dream, a couple of songs that - gosh - flirt with being both upbeat and uplifting. Throughout, the playing is Rufus at his best and most classically inclined, and the voice is pitch perfect. By the time Zebulon's weepie climax arrives ('Who has ever been free in this world? Who has never had to bleed in this world?'), the entrancing spell Rufus has cast is complete, leaving the sole option of thundering applause to follow his silent exit.

After a brief interlude (stiff drinks all round, I say), we take to our seats to be greeted by a de-caped Rufus - waistcoat and tartan trousers, if you're wondering - once again taking to his piano, but this time surrounded by glowing candles that seem to suggest Act II's tagline should be: 'He's back and, this time, it's still personal'. For, while the heavy-heartedness of Act I is dispensed with for a run-through of 'the hits', it's clear that this tour is getting back to basics and reminding everyone of the intimate nature of his repertoire. And what a repertoire! Beginning with Beauty Mark, a song dedicated to his mother from happier times, the second half is a fan's dream, running the gamut from 1998's self-titled debut to 2007's accomplished Release the Stars. Tellingly, there's no cuts from the Judy Garland tribute shows, communicating the personal nature of these two hours spent with Wainwright.

Despite the presence of relatively jaunty tunes like Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk and Vibrate, which features a blistering vocal performance, the spectre of loss still hangs heavy; Matinee Idol and lush ballad Memphis Skyline concern the premature deaths of River Phoenix and Jeff Buckley, respectively. In between genteel and familiar anecdotes about taking chilly runs next to Birmingham canals and checking out the town's pre-Raphaelites, there's also a noticeable focus on family; ode to Martha Little Sister precedes anguished father-son drama Dinner at Eight, which Rufus tells us was voted 'Most Wanted' song on his website (amusingly, Hallelujah was not included: "Save that for The X Factor," he chuckles, before showing he's been reading the papers by adding, "or The Nick Factor"). So, while the primary focus has shifted from mother Kate, the evening still retains an aspect of ritual bloodletting, which makes it all the more complimentary that the stripped setup never feels 'barebones'. Never before has Wainwright's affinity for his instrument been so evident, tackling complex piano lines from the likes of Nobody's Off the Hook and his skill on the keys proving so rich throughout that it's just not possible for one to miss the presence of other instruments.

The second standing ovation of the night commences as Rufus leaves the stage, and it's not long before the third is in full flow. A perfectly judged encore comes full circle with one final tearful show of remembrance, as Rufus performs his mother's very own track Walking Song, a gently enveloping ballad concerning the marriage from which both Rufus and Martha were borne. Before it, he declares that England was a place his mother loved dearly and thanks the outpouring of condolences from British fans and press following her passing; after it, he wipes a tear from his eye, gracefully bows and thanks his now wildly applauding audience. It's a good job he didn't request silence for the whole evening: despite his best intentions, he would have been wildly disappointed.


Act I
Who Are You New York?
Sad with What I Have
Give Me What I Want and Give It To Me Now!
True Loves
Sonnet 43
Sonnet 20
Sonnet 10
The Dream
What Would I Ever Do with a Rose?
Les Feux D'Artifice T'Appellent

Act II
Beauty Mark
Grey Gardens
Nobody's Off the Hook
Matinee Idol
Memphis Skyline
The Art Teacher
Leaving for Paris no. 2
Little Sister
Dinner at Eight
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk

Going to a Town
Walking Song

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