Despite touring much of Europe last fall with a full accompanying band, an Apollo costume complete with wings and a giant diaper, and a singing rubber sandwich, Rufus Wainwright appeared on stage in D.C. Tuesday night with nothing more than his voice, a grand piano, and a floor-lit velvet curtain – and that was enough to stop everyone at the 9:30 Club in their tracks. The club has seen some incredibly LOUD shows and some incredibly packed-to-the-rafters shows in the past few months, but Wainwright’s solo performance was delivered with nothing more than his piano and an occasional acoustic guitar, which was enough to render the audience as silent as a D.C. crowd is capable of being. After a delightful warm-up performance by Wainwright’s sister Lucy (she’s coming to the Kennedy Center on March 23 – do yourself a favor and GO), the crowd spent much of the night transfixed by one man’s voice, raw emotion, and a lot of banter about the state of Congress.
Opening with “The Art Teacher,” from 2004’s Want Two, Wainwright signaled early that he wasn’t here merely to promote last year’s Out of the Game -- he only sang three selections from his newest album, instead showcasing favorites and covers from across a decade-plus career. “The Maker Makes” followed in a plaintive and beautiful vein, and no matter how many artists you’ve seen on that same stage, by the second verse you’ve forgotten if anyone else on earth even knows how to sing.
Staying behind the piano for “Vibrate,” which isn’t about what you think it’s about, Wainwright sang with such raw simplicity and beauty that the song demonstrated why the phrase “soaring vocal” was invented – until he hit an slightly less than perfect note and shouted “SHHIIIIIITTTT!!” in the best operatic tradition. The moment cemented his hold on the audience, and from that point forward every glitch seemed like an intimate inside joke. Later in the set when he broke a string on “Jericho,” then admitted he didn’t know how to change a guitar string, it was charming as hell. Rather than wait for a new string for his sister’s well-worn guitar, Wainwright hilariously blew through the remaining half of the song in 30 seconds using half the chords. Even when he’s screwing around, Wainwright’s voice is like a fish hook to the spine, pulling the listener through any song he feels like tackling.
One of the highlights of the evening was seeing highly polished songs from his various albums take on a deeper meaning when performed live. For “Out of the Game,” the studio version of which is an orchestrated piece of glam teetering just on the brink of cheese, Wainwright picked up his sister's now slightly out of tune guitar and belted the song out, which made the point so much more evident. After getting married last year to his partner, and fathering a child with Lorca Cohen (yes, the daughter of Leonard Cohen), Wainwright’s putting the Oscar Wilde freewheeling lifestyle behind him, and is now lecturing all the Grindr kids who're following his old ways.
Wainwright included a tribute portion to the evening, performing “Who Are You New York?” and “Martha” while explaining that he and sister Martha would be traveling to Berlin to see the debut of a movie about their mother Kate McGarrigle, who passed away three years ago from a rare form of cancer. Following up with “Memphis Skyline,” which he wrote for Jeff Buckley, Wainwright admitted that if he’d heard Buckley’s version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he’d never have recorded one himself. When Lucy joined him on stage to actually perform “Hallelujah,” if melded perfectly into the set, which was filled with stories from his life in a vaguely confessional way.
Lucy stayed on stage for a few more songs, including an upbeat version of “April Fools,” before exiting to let Wainwright cover his mother’s “Walking Song.” It started out as the tenderest of songs imaginable, before he plunked it with a few off notes, drawing a roaring laugh from the audience – he then recovered to lay everyone bare with the finishing notes. Wainwright doesn’t so much cover songs, as coat them with that remarkable voice.
It’s hard to get through a review of a Rufus Wainwright show without mentioning that he's gay, primarily because Rufus Wainwright can't get through a show without multiple references to his life and sexuality. From the “gay cowboy song” he wrote for Brokeback Mountain until the encore of “Montauk,” Wainwright wore that part of himself on his sleeve like Madonna wears sex on hers (assuming Madonna would ever put a shirt on). He thanked Obama and Biden for their support of issues impacting the gay community, and gave thanks for giving gays the right to get divorced and get killed in battle.
Saving the remarkable “Montauk” for the encore, Wainwright took a playful song written for his daughter and delivered it with an almost ferocious power on piano – you can almost taste how much he wants his kid to accept the strange and lovely family they've created for her. On Out of the Game, the song is sweet and mocking, but live he performed with a fervor only a parent can understand. You want your kid to love you so, so, so, much, and with the unusual way Viva came into the world, that fear can only be compounded -- Wainwright is pleading with future Viva, at an age when kids stop loving their parents absolutely and start questioning. Live the song lost all lullaby qualities, morphing into an incredibly raw moment in an evening already overflowing with emotional soul-bearing.
Wainwright seemed almost surprised that we were still there at the end of song, and immediately lightened the mood by adding that we all deserved another song because of our dedication. And with that, he closed with the first single he ever released, "Foolish Love," which was perfectly delivered two days before Valentine’s Day. With a laugh and a final flourish, the song brought the evening completely full circle for a performer who never fails to leave a part of himself with the audience.