Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Get Happy!

Rufus Wainwright, Carling Apollo Hammersmith, 30th October 2007

In heaven, all gigs will be like this. They will open with a short, but sweet support set, on this occasion from honey-voiced singer-songwriter Scott Matthews. The addition of a string quartet provided some soothing Robert Kirby-esque arrangements and I felt that, for once, the stronger influence was Tim rather than Jeff Buckley. Then, with little messing about, not one but two very generous sets from star of the show Rufus Wainwright, amounting to two and a half hours of breathtaking entertainment that comfortably justified the £38 ticket price.

Over the past three or four years, Rufus has gradually been accruing all the necessary components of the perfect songwriter and entertainer. He has a unique ability to be frivolous, disposable, playful, camp and hilarious on one hand, yet touching, affecting, profound and deeply insightful on the other. He’s at his very best when he somehow pulls all this off simultaneously. Those people who genuinely believe that Robbie Williams is the greatest entertainer of our time are missing something in their lives!

Rufus is in outstanding voice tonight. Where once he had a tendency to exaggerate or slur his words as if drunk, tonight his phrasing is crisp and clear. His voice is big and full of gravitas without being overbearing or grating. It is a voice that can be self-mocking or completely sincere depending on the context. His unamplified take on a Scottish folk song (title translates as ‘hearthrob’ apparently) is truly spine tingling, and evidence not just of his family background, but also of his own sublime talent.

The first set centres largely on new album ‘Release The Stars’, with its grandiose horn and wind flourishes and unrestrained pomposity. Opening with the title track is an unpredictable but effective gamble – the horn arrangement veering into New Orleans Marching Band territory. We’re treated to a mournful ‘Going To A Town’ and an utterly hilarious ‘Tulsa’ (dedicated to Killers frontman Brandon Flowers - ‘amazingly talented, wonderfully handsome, hopelessly het-e-ro-sex-ual!’). The closing one-two of the vulnerable ‘Leaving For Paris’ and extravagant ‘Between My Legs’ gives Rufus the opportunity for some unsubtle humour (‘we’ve left Paris, we’re now between my legs!’) and one lucky everyman from the audience gets to do the closing theatrical voiceover. He does this very gamely, in appropriately overblown style, with accompanying hand gestures.

Those hoping for some back catalogue gems would no doubt have been satiated by a superbly moving version of ‘The Art Teacher’ (for all his love of massive orchestration, there’s little doubt that Rufus is as much a master when alone at the piano) and a playful ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’, complete with some all-too-human gaffs, which Rufus endearingly does not attempt to disguise.

The second set is less predictable, not least because of Rufus’ costume change into lederhosen. Although it fills in all the remaining gaps from ‘Release The Stars’, there are also two wonderful selections from the Judy Garland show, the aforementioned Scottish folk tune, a crackling, tempestuous ‘Beautiful Child’ and a real curveball choice in ‘The Consort’, one of the finest tracks from ‘Poses’. It all ends with an extended arrangement of the magnificent ‘14th Street’, which out-Sondheims Sondheim and gives the exquisite band a chance to show their chops. Breaking free from the meticulous arrangements, they sound positively liberated.

There’s still a generous encore though – including ‘I Don’t Know What It Is’, a wonderfully expressive ‘Danny Boy’ (the Rufus original, not the folk song) and a delicious solo performance of ‘Poses’. By now, Rufus is now in a bath robe, and as a cluster of technicians quickly remove the piano, it is clear there is something of a surprise underneath it (the bath robe, not the piano). In drag, Rufus and some charismatic dancers then perform a karaoke version of the old standard ‘Get Happy’. No, really. I’d say it was a prime YouTube moment but, really and truly, you just had to be there.

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