To Die By Your Side

Rufus Wainwright – Birmingham Symphony Hall 20/04/2010

April 22nd, 2010

You find me in two minds about writing this review. The fact is that I’m not a huge Rufus Wainwright fan. My knowledge of his work is minimal and more often than not, I find him an acquired, occasionally grating taste. Having now spent an evening in his company, I’m not entirely sure it’s a taste I’ve come to acquire. He’s one of those artists that in theory, I should love but in reality, I just don’t. He’s a bit too showy for me. Too theatrical. Undoubtedly, an exceptional talent, but one that  I  admire rather than enjoy. All of which should probably be leading you to assume that this will be an unfavourable review of an unpleasant evening.

The problem is, that my experience of this particular show is not so much determined by Rufus Wainwright’s performance, as my lack of familiarity with his work. Had he played a set full of slight pop songs brimming with catchy hooks and singalong choruses, I could easily form an opinion. But he didn’t. The majority of his songs are complex and involved. Full of complicated structures and shifts in tempo and tone. The kind of songs you need to immerse yourself in before you can fully appreciate them. Not then, the kind of songs you can truly appreciate on first listen at a live show.

It doesn’t help that the first part of the show is less a gig, than a performance piece. A full run through of his current album as a kind of tribute to his recently deceased mother. It’s safe to say that unlike his turn at Glastonbury, there will be no comedy song and dance routine. Instead we get a lone grand piano, a single spotlight and a few specially commissioned films of heavily made up eyes blinking in slow motion. Ever had the feeling you’re in for a long night?! With a request of no applause until he leaves the stage at the end, Rufus Wainwright walks on to deadly silence. Dressed in a long black cloak that trails far behind, he walks across the stage at a funeral pace. Step, together. Step together. Step, together. Maybe it marks me out as some kind of heathen but for me, this entrance and it’s repeated exit are the most moving parts of the performance. Alone on stage with no interaction or even recognition of the audience, what is supposed to be artistic and profound, ends up feeling difficult, uncomfortable and ever so slightly indulgent. The songs are morose and heavy going. Dense, intricate, and somewhat impenetrable piano weaves around deeply personal lyrics that frankly are hard to connect with on first listen. My attention wanders, my mind drifts and frankly I’m relieved when he leaves the stage ending the first half of the show. Disappearing into darkness, the audience erupts in applause.

One much needed break later, we’re back and so is Rufus. Only now, we’re allowed to applaud and he is free of the mournful character of earlier. In far more jovial spirits, this feels more like it. Between songs he’s affable and witty, the complete opposite of the first half. It still doesn’t feel like a gig though.  Billed as An Evening With…, it feels more like an old school raconteur charming his adoring audience and breaking it up with a few songs in between. Thankfully this is less like hard work. The songs are lighter. Not as difficult. There’s even a few tunes in there, some I’ve actually heard before. Maybe it’s their comparative familiarity but ‘Vibrate’, ‘Going To A Town’ and ‘The Art Teacher’ all stand out. Though it is a gorgeous, understated ‘Leaving for Paris’ that steals the show mid way through. It’s simplicity and beauty cutting through and connecting on a level that not many of his songs did for me. In the same way, despite the whole first half of tonight being a tribute to his mother, it is his final song, a cover of one of her songs that feels far more fitting and heartfelt.

Like I said, this review probably says more about my knowledge of his back catalogue, than of his performance. A gig like this felt like a night for full on fans, rather than those dipping their toe in for the first time. So maybe the fact that the crowd gave him a standing ovation says more about this show than I ever could.

Rufus Wainwright – the art teacher (live piano only session version) original version available on ‘Want Two’

Filed Under Live Review, Music

Rach posted the following on April 29, 2010 at 4:09 pm.

I am not a big fan either and will probably never see him live nor do I own any of his other albums. That being said his new album is quite beautiful when the mood is right, quiet and somber. But I couldn’t imagine seeing it live… It would just seem too awkward, which it sounds like it was.

Richard posted the following on April 29, 2010 at 8:21 pm.

‘Awkward’ is the perfect word. Didn’t make me want to listen to the album at all.


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