“Operas don’t sell very well” Rufus Wainwright noted at his solo performance Tuesday night, by way of explaining why he was spending his two hour performance selling everything that moves .In a strangely obtrusive and borderline obnoxious manner, he follows his half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche’s hard sell set with an even harder sell set. Starting with the second song and continuing relentless till the stage is filled with audience members who had pledged $100 a shot to singalong to “Hallelujah” two hours later, Rufus is the Crazy Eddie of pop stars. Wanna help Rufus record his opera “Diva”? Pledge $15. Wanna have dinner and then have Rufus write a song about the experience? $60,000. Buy the DVD, buy the CD, buy buy buy.
Well hold on one minute here Rufus: I already paid $100 for a ticket, why would I wanna spend more? And even if I did, why would I wanna be hustled all night about it? He’s like a stripper trying to get you into the champagne room.
Wanna know why Rufus’s career has tanked? because he never actually was a commercial star and never figure out how to fix it. But even so… in 2010, Rufus released his powerful and perfect though certainly not commercial requiem for his mother Kate McGarrigle All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. His performance at Carnegie Hall at the end of 2010 was one of the most moving testaments not to Kate (which would figure) but to Universal Loss and also, with his sister Martha bringing his infant nephew on stage, also to rebirth. Followed by the opera Rufus needed a pop move and so hooked up with Mark Ronson, who hasn’t produced a pop move this decade and failed completely and uniformly on Out On The Town. Rufus isn’t selling not because he isn’t popular any more, he never much was, but because he can’t figure out how to solve it. And despite quite enjoying two new songs, written for his husband, “Argentina” and “Friendship Is The Wind”, it is damn good thing he is selling a “best of” package. “I wanted to call it a ‘Should Have Been Hits’ package but the label wouldn’t let me,” Rufus quips. And his steady and ready wit and self-deprecation is one reason it was a good not disastrous set.
There are other reasons. The setlist is sharp and while I seriously missed “Martha”, “Zebulon” “Sad With What I Have” and “Who Are You New York?”, I guess you’ve figured by now that I am a Lulu fetishist, maybe I’m in the minority. Leaning heavily on the Vibrate best of collection, Rufus, on piano which he plays very well, and on acoustic guitar plus leg kicks. In fine voice, I mean perfect voice. The operatic yet nasal and yet with the slightest of lisps singing is addictive and when you hear him speak –check out the interview with Costello on “Spectacle” to see what I mean, he even speaks sings that way. It adds intense drama to everything he sings and since he is pretty dramatic to start with, everything has the depth of soap opera meets real life tragedy. Part of the wonder of Lulu is that the songs which lead him from the hospital where his mother lay dying of cancer to the park where he looked for love or something like it, was perfect for his singing voice. It deserved the emotional density in ways the silly “Me and Liza” –with sister Lucy, a good sport in a fright wig, didn’t.
Lucy’s set itself was an excellent mix of stand up and sit down; she has a lovely voice, a way with a song (last year’s album with her mother Suzzy Roche, Fairytale And Myth is a beauty) and great taste, covering Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” and forcing the issue on a singalong to “Hungry Heart”.
Rufus stood on Lucy’s “Hallelujah” verse and the song with the creepy paying guests on stage was a low point though it wasn’t that low. The highlight was an a capella “Candle”, a vocal tour de force which seemed in synch and under duress with every single note. “Out Of The Game” was much better live as was the other single from the same album “Jericho”. “Poses” –debatably Rufus’s greatest moment, isn’t helped even vaguely by the paying choir, but I have seldom heard Rufus better than a stunning “I Don’t Know What It Is” where Rufus claims and I believe him, that writing the song saved him from committing suicide.
At the heart of the waning Rufus myth is that boy-man of “Poses” and “Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk” and “I Don’t Know what It Is” –a gorgeous sexual charlatan, a shallow as a puddle sexiness at odds with his gifts and his passions, always after it a little bit thicker. While never too hot on the charts (his debut album reached #24 and he has never improved upon it) he was the hippest of guys and whether strung out on myth and crystal meth or distilling at the Chelsea Hotel, Wainwright was the coolest of dudes.
It is a perception at odds with his strange half- life youth, raped as a teenage boy, effimiate, brutalized by father Loudon, Oedipal and in love with his Mommy Kate, amd a world where people were either sticking their dick or awards in his hands, and so it has ever been and so he has portrayed himself. And the coolness of that vision of Rufus, the “There’s never been such grave a matter as comparing our new brand name black sunglasses” not to mention “life is a game and true love is a trophy” is what makes him a legendary pop music figure.
But that was the twenty something bad boy and not the 40 year old married man and father we have before us. Now he is something else, just back from a tour of Europe, working on his second opera “Hadrian”, trying to finance a recording of his last opera, keeping food on the table, cutting out the band to save money, true love is something else than a trophy and despite his good will and his stupendous talent, somewhere in between the two it is not fitting in right.
It goes back to this question: why Mark Ronson and not Calvin Harris? Rufus might have never had great commercial instincts but he was never uncool. What are we meant to do with an uncool rufus? What do we want with him?
On Tuesday, Rufus had no answers for us. Neither the great artist nor the great huckster, he just sold himself and it made for a sort of sad but not bad experience. Perhaps we should give him more money and help him figure out how he is going to charge his art and his pop music into the 21st century.
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