Live: Rufus Wainwright at the Perth Concert Hall for PIAF
Words by: Matt Norman
I’ll be honest: I knew nothing about Rufus Wainwright until last night. I’d never heard his music before, let alone seen his face. I could have passed him in the street and been none the wiser. I knew nothing about Lucy Wainwright, either – not that she’s Rufus’s sister, nor that she would be playing as his support act for the show. Even now, I couldn’t name you a single one of the original songs either of them played on Monday. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but arrived at the Concert Hall with an open mind and high hopes. What followed was a very strange experience, though by no means a bad one.
Lucy came out first, said hello, and jumped straight into a song. Her music is simple and beautiful – just a finger-plucked acoustic guitar and a stunning voice. She sang about love and heartbreak with remarkable honesty, and established a great rapport with the crowd. In fact, she talked to her audience more than I’d ever seen a performer do before. She told us that she’s been on the road alone for the last 6 years or so – “so I’ve got a lot to say!” she laughed. She told us that she’s recording an album of ‘dark lullabies’ with her and Rufus’s sister, and gave us a sneak peak with a song about babies growing on (and falling out of) trees.
Then she told us about a failed gig in Lithuania where the only way she could get the audience involved in a singalong to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’ was to change the lyrics to “everybody’s got a basketball”. Apparently Lithuanians are very passionate about their basketball. Who knew. Naturally, after that story a drunk local yelled out “you should sing about cricket!” and before long a chorus of “everybody’s got a cricket bat” was filling the hall. It was a decidedly odd performance, but a very endearing one.
Then it was Rufus’s turn to take to the stage. Now, even when you come to a gig with absolutely no expectations, operatic alt-pop is the last thing you expect. The first thing to hit me was the uniqueness of his musical style; rich and complex in contrast to the simplicity of Lucy’s, but equally captivating. The second thing was the sheer power of the man’s voice. A life-long interest in the opera (which I learnt about later – thank you Wikipedia) is reflected in the incredible sound produced by those pipes. Musicality aside, Rufus’s performance was somewhat erratic, to say the least. After sharing a song from his own original opera ‘Prima Donna’, he was suddenly joined on stage by ‘Liza Minelli’ (Lucy, in a bad wig and a sequined shawl). They performed two songs written for and about Liza together, before Rufus was alone again and decided to debut a new song he has written about Lucy.
“There’s one bit that’s really hard to play,” he warned us, “but screw it”. Apparently it was quite hard indeed – Rufus stopped three times during the song to try one part again and again because he wasn’t quite happy with it. For the audience, the experience was jarring and a little disappointing. He soon had us back on-side, however, with an amazing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. An extended encore ensued, and with a final crash of the black and white keys, the night was at an end.
I’m not certain I’d go and see a Rufus Wainwright gig again, though I’m glad to have seen him once. He’s an impressive musician; his songs have lyrical and musical depth and his voice is a show-stopper on its own. Perhaps if I’d known more about him before I entered I would have been happy to go along for the ride; as it was, I left the concert hall more than a little confused and just short of satisfied.
Then again, maybe everyone deserves a few Google searches and a second chance.