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Rufus Wainwright At Carnegie Hall, Friday, June 17th, 2016

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Is Rufus Wainwright incapable of telling an anecdote? The worst thing about his recreation  last night at Carnegie Hall of his 2006 recreation of the 1961 Judy Garland Live At Carnegie -a live album on a par with Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now, is the way he tells the story. It was so poor, his execution of a punchline so off, his stutter so irritating, he seemed to stop the shows momentum time after time. Telling a potentially hysterical story about his five year old daughter Vivian heckling him (“TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE STAR!”), is stepped on due to his poor delivery. He stutters and stops, gets sidetracked and misses the joke. Song after song after song after song. Sometimes he was copying Judy’s patter but more often than his execution was off, if you ever watch his interview by Elvis Costello for “Revolver” you will also note a similar problem, but one on one there was a certain charm in his stating “Nothing crazy in a good way” happened when he met Jeff Buckley. Here it is a momentum killer.

It is really a pity. Rufus released his best album since 2010 earlier this year and as man and band goes, Rufus lead a full orchestra, it is enough to make you do cartwheels, just the way Rufus did during “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart”. In remarkable voice, with Carnegie Hall lending the hand it didn’t lend during the Bowie tribute earlier this year, these were sublime not recreations, it wasn’t impersonation, but channeling, tributing, thinking through with Rufus’s beautiful tenor voice, as strong as supple as possible. One of our great contemporaries,  he is many things but he isn’t Judy Garland, and if you came to this show to see Judy the way you never had, you won’t see her. You will see an artist with as fine a handle onthe American Songbook as anybody not named Bobby Short.You would have seen is one terrific performance after another, including an immaculate “You Go My Head” in its original key, and a “How Long Has This Been Going” with conductor Stephen Oremus on piano and the Hall so perfectly in synch with Wainwright, the sound was clear with every note ringing true.

The performance took the time to reference the slaughter at Pulse. though I must wonder if the gay community is as traumatized as Rufus claims: “We are really very, very, very bothered by this” he claimed, but it is like hating oceans because of tsunamis. The murderer was a closet case Jihadist, but does it really rank as an attack by the country on all LGBT? I don’t see how it is, I don’t see how people think it is. Hell, even LGBT’S new best friend Donald Trump condemned it (Rufus dedicates  “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” to the Donald just in time for the song’s centennial). I understand the trauma about as much as I understand the trauma of rock fans after Paris. Look at it this way: if terrorists ONLY killed LGBTs, he”d have a point but that isn’t the case.

Back to the show,  there were also guest stars: Ann Wilson of Heart joined Rufus for a recreation of the Judy meets Barbra Streisand portion of The Judy Show from 1963, also Rufus  invited his extraordinarily gifted sister Martha (I love her in her own right, but it is certainly worth noting that Rufus wrote one of his greatest songs after her), who performed “Stormy Weather” much more like Billie Holiday than Judy, and was handed “Someone To Watch Over Me” for the first song of the encore.

During the actual performance, I felt a little restless and not quite into it, but listening to my recording today… Rufus really sings the American songbook very very well. He has everything, the voice so tender and moving yet with none of Judy’s emotional fragility so it is a clearer connection to the material. The difference is, and this is a huge compliment, Judy made these song her own but Rufus made them belong to Judy and to their own time and place in history (the 40s and early 50s, not 1961). Most of it works though although Rufus got a standing O for “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, it wasn’t very good, indeed, it was a very slow drag.

Not a history lesson, not quite a tribute, hurt by a lack of momentum,  Rufus tapped into an uneasiness that permeates the 2010s by tapping into those things that made us cope, the way Judy, in the finishing end, didn’t cope at all.

Grade: B+

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