Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III – review

Royal Opera House, London

Rufus Wainwright's residency at the Royal Opera House is billed as "five nights of velvet, glamour and guilt". Perhaps the words "post-oedipal melodrama and jokes" wouldn't quite fit on the posters.

It is remarkable enough that one Canadian-American songwriter, more acclaimed critically than commercially, should be afforded a week of his own at the Royal Opera House. Wainwright's House Of Rufus extravaganza spans two petite performances of Rufus Does Judy (Wainwright's 2006 cover version of Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall appearance), one night split between Rufus and his sister Martha Wainwright, and a bonsai version of Prima Donna, the opera Wainwright premiered two years ago. You can just about hear the mental calculations of the Opera House's gatekeepers. "He's actually written an opera! This would be a way of popularising our elitist stronghold without dumbing down." Or, as Rufus puts it, twinkling: "You are so well funded! We wouldn't get away with this in the US."

More remarkable still is this Rufus and Loudon double bill. It would not have been imaginable a few years ago. With no little grim irony, it has probably taken the illness and death of Rufus's mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, to orchestrate it. Tonight's show is not a first. Loudon and Rufus have shared stages several times in recent years. But never have they gone head to head, with the prospect of père et fils volleying songs about one another back and forth across two sets. And so it proves, after a fashion.

Pow! Loudon Wainwright III serves hard with "Rufus Is a Tit Man" – an enduringly creepy tune about the breastfeeding infant. ("Although," Loudon quips, "he is more of a pecs man these days.")

Bash! Rufus returns after the interval with "Dinner at Eight", his own grand slamming of his parents' breakup and his rivalry with Loudon. It still brings a cottony wad to the throat.

Wallop! Loudon hits back with "A Father and a Son", a 20-year-old song documenting the strains of his relationship with the teenage Rufus. There's no little drama lurking in the wings, too. With an illustrious 40-year career at his back, Loudon Wainwright III is, tonight, basically a support act for his son.

In May, Wainwright III released a box set, collating a lifetime of bitter, funny, honest songs over four CDs and a DVD, and a 40-page book. Just two months on, Rufus put out his own 19-CD box, encased in velvet, with a 90-page hardback book.

Loudon's set privileges comedy, or so it seems: his songs have a way of hiding heartache in slapstick. "Heaven", for instance, deals with mortality by imagining the afterlife as an orgy of booze and fags. But one self‑deprecating turn at the piano is the night's keynote offering. "Another Song in C" starts as a quip, but builds into a gooseflesh-raising portrait of Wainwright's successive families failing to stick together.

If you were to ungenerously pit the men against each other, Rufus's set of his own material is probably the more artistically evolved. A four-song run of favourites, including "The Art Teacher" and "Going to a Town", at the start of his set finds Rufus's maple-syrup vocals combining sumptuously with his band's arrangements. The only quibble here is that Rufus played at least three of them the other night, when he shared the billing with Martha.

Are there still subtle rivalries percolating there? Rufus's sister Martha had a baby, Arcangelo, in 2009 (of which there is a moving account, here). Last February, Wainwright announced the birth of his daughter, Viva, with childhood friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. As Wainwright is in a committed relationship with German videographer Jorn Weisbrodt, the mechanics of this conception remain a matter of speculation in the more prurient corners of the internet. Both Arcangelo and Viva are in the house tonight, with Loudon paying tribute to "the next wave". We can probably all look forward to Viva's own searing dynastic piano indictments, out around 2033. This may be a spectacularly self-obsessed clan of musicians, but their enduring themes of hate-within-love should resonate with anyone who isn't an orphaned hermit. Or, as Loudon puts it, we are in "the Soap Opera House" tonight.

Oh, they can laugh about it now – and they do. Rufus and Loudon start a cover of a regretful Kate McGarrigle song, "Come a Long Way", before it grinds to a halt in a disagreement about timing. "I recorded it!" protests Loudon with mock outrage. "I own the publishing!" retorts Rufus, with exaggerated pique. Their voices, though, melt into one magnificently once the song gathers the correct pace.

Indeed, despite all the potent oedipal stuff flying around – Loudon's songs about his own father, Rufus's songs about Loudon, Loudon and Martha's hammy accusatory duet, "You Never Phone" – the Wainwright family rancour has been superseded by warmth. Lucy Wainwright Roche appears as well, her clear voice adding another dimension to the delicious four-way harmonies when Loudon and his three eldest children sing together. "One Man Guy" is a wry love song by Loudon to himself; the four sing it together in an act of mutual recognition and, you can only conclude, forgiveness.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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