Rufus Wainwright | Pop review

Sadler's Wells, London

Tonight is a simple affair by Rufus Wainwright's standards – just him and the piano. But even alone at the keyboard, Wainwright makes his music sound ornate. In full flight, he is breathtaking: his rich baritone can soar more powerfully than its usual slurred croon would indicate, and his keyboard arrangements cram in trills upon rococo trills without sacrificing the songs.

Wainwright is not a man to shy away from pretension – and after six studio albums, he is now at the stage of his career where he can count on an adoring audience to accept this wholly as an integral part of his aesthetic, the source of his talents as well as his indulgences.

The first half of the evening is devoted to performing his new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, in its chronological entirety – and as a "song cycle" during which clapping is forbidden. (The audience is graciously informed that they may clap as much as they wish in the evening's second half.)

Decked out in a black ruffled cape with a train stretching off stage, Wainwright's procession to and from his piano seems to last longer than the song cycle. This gambit's success is correlative to the material. As on record, The Dream and Who Are You New York? are magnificent, spiralling works that showcase Wainwright at his baroque best, while Zebulon is an emotional sucker punch of a closer; but the cycle sags in the middle with three aimless adaptations of Shakespearean sonnets.

The intensity lifts in the second half. Wainwright bounds back on to the stage, hammers the ivories for a sequence of his more upbeat numbers, and engages in winningly wry banter between each song, though a certain brittleness is never far from the surface as he takes to task the critics who have delivered mixed reviews of his concurrently running opera, Prima Donna. The tension between Wainwright's showmanship and confessionalism has long been a hallmark – his catharsis seems to manifest itself in twitches of disgust, unwanted emotions batted away as though they were wrong notes.

Towards the evening's end, he chokes up at the close of an emotional Dinner at Eight – still the finest of the many songs in which he has tackled his family's psychodrama – and launches straight into an insistently jaunty Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. The juxtaposition is jarring, momentarily uncomfortable – and makes for the most affecting moment of the show.


Alex Macpherson

The GuardianTramp

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