Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

A pedigree performer

23 February 2020

Rufus Wainwright’s great talent and insight were in full flower for his Perth Festival show, David Zampatti says.

Review: Perth Festival, Rufus Wainwright, Down Solo Wainwright ·
Perth Concert Hall, 21 February 2020 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Rufus Wainwright has been famous since birth (thanks to his famous dad Louden’s “Dilated to Meet You”) and infancy (“Rufus Is a Tit Man” – Louden again) through growing up with his famous mother, the tender, luminous singer and songwriter, Kate McGarrigle, his famous aunt, Anna, and his famous sister, Martha.

He cemented his own fame with famous concerts in New York, Los Angeles and London, recreating famous concerts by the famous Judy Garland. He even had a daughter, Viva Wainwright Cohen, who was also famous at birth, because her grandfather was the very famous Leonard.

If it all sounds like the biography of a prince in some royal family, that’s because it is.

Unlike most princes, though, whose fame is entirely dependant on the circumstances of their birth, Wainwright has revealed himself as a songwriter and performer of great talent and insight, and this concert for Perth Festival as part of its Kabarett Haus series, saw them in full flower.

I’ve seen Wainwright before, at the aforementioned Judy Garland concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008, and then at his sombre 2010 Perth Festival performance where it was clear he was deeply affected by the recent death of his mother.

The great news is how much his voice has matured in power and richness. In 2008, part of the fun was listening to him attempt material he openly admitted he wasn’t up to; in 2010, his vocal peculiarity (I described it, back then, as “a chainsaw wrapped in felt”) was a high hurdle to overcome.

His voice is still not my favourite instrument, but he’s grown and refined it, and it’s no longer an impediment to enjoyment of his outstanding material and stage presence.

I’m still unconvinced by the Concert Hall’s acoustics for the amplified voice, though this concert was an improvement on recent outings.

The songs – opening with the romantic “The Art Teacher” and the wry, knowing “Vibrate” (“I tried to dance to Britney Spears/I guess I’m getting on in years”) – worked across his entire back catalogue and his soon-to-be-released album Unfollow the Rules.

The show really lifted with Pink Martini leader Thomas N. Lauderdale’s arrival for Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean”, Anna McGarrigle’s heartbreaking “Kitty Come Home”, and, from that Judy Garland show, “Zing Go the Strings of My Heart”. Lauderdale has an incredible knack of being flamboyant and self-effacing at once, and if you were asked to sing in heaven, you’d want him behind you on piano.

There was a purring sound offstage through the opening bars of Kurt Weil’s “Little Grey House” that materialised in the spectacle of Meow Meow, who sashayed and beamed her way through this, and Harold Arlen’s second most famous song, “Come on Get Happy”.

After their duets, Wainwright took to Arlen’s most famous song “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, and this powerful, adroit performance left the one at the Hollywood Bowl back in Kansas.

By now, Wainwright was hand-feeding the audience. A run through of family stories in song culminating in his early, celebrated “Cigarettes and Chocolate” and the cutting, jaundiced “Going to a Town (Tired of America)” made the demand for an encore inevitable.

Inevitable, also, was what it would be: the song that might one day vie with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” as the world’s most famous, Leonard Cohen’s old testament of sexual desire, aberration and release. Apart from the fact that hardly anyone knows what it’s about, it should never be sung at weddings or funerals, and really only ever by a grown up, and there are precious few of them in popular music. The late Cohen was one, then there are John Cale and Nick Cave, though his is a different song with the same title.

On the strength of Wainwright’s performance to end a concert of many pleasures, I think the prince is all grown up and entitled to join that exclusive club.


Pictured top: Rufus Wainwright is a talented composer and songwriter. Photo: Josep Echaburu

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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