Monday, August 10, 2009

Wainwright's Return A Personal Affair

Rufus Wainwright
Zoellner Arts Center
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Aug. 7, 2009

There was a moment deep into Rufus Wainwright's concert at Zoellner Arts Center Friday evening when he refused the assistance of his stagehand, who had mistakenly forgot to place lyrics on the singer's piano prior to the concert. When she held up the printed lyrics to Sheakespeare's 20th sonnet — "A Woman's Face" — off stage, ready to bring them out, Wainwright proclaimed, "No, I need to do this myself."

He then recited the entire sonnet word for word, before singing it to a devastating melody with piano accompaniment. Perhaps I shouldn't read so much into it, but I got the sense that with this small gesture, Wainwright aimed to make the night a touch more personal for the audience. Already an incredibly open artist — sometimes to an uncomfortable extent — this was Wainwright letting the audience in on his practice, much like a student recites something from memory to test himself. It was a small blip in the night's program that only confirmed what Wainwright's fans have known and treasured for years: this man shares everything.

Armed with just a piano, the occasional acoustic guitar and his rich, sensational voice, Wainwright let his guard down over the course of an hour and half long set in front of a near-capacity Baker Hall. (He sold out the hall the last time he came to Zoellner in 2004.) From the opening chords to "Going to a Town" — a minor hit from his last studio album, 2007's Release The Stars — to his final encore of "Gay Messiah," Wainwright was loose, vulnerable and in turn, brilliant all night.

Stretching his classical tenor around songs like the sad "Leaving for Paris," the intricate "Grey Gardens," and the playful "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," Wainwright offered the audience exactly what he told me he would when I interviewed him a few weeks ago: a sorbet of sorts. There were selections from just about everything he's ever been involved in: all five of his studio albums, the aforementioned Shakespeare sonnets (a collaboration with The Berliner Ensemble), and the closing aria to his original opera, "Prima Donna." which premiered last month in Manchester. Wainwright sang "Les Feux d'Artifice" entirely in French, proving his emotion could be conveyed just as easily across languages.

The portions of the concert in which Wainwright dueted with his younger half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche (who opened the show with her own material) were the most captivating. Lucy's lush, breathy voice strangely complemented Wainwright's much deeper, more theatrical croon. She provided harmonies on "Katonah," "April Fools," and Wainwright's popular cover of "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen classic that was prominently featured in "Shrek." It was a joy to see the brother and sister interact and make music with each other, and again made me wonder what it was like to grow up in that household. (Wainwright's parents are folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, while another sister, Martha, is also a well-known singer.)

The concert was a wonderful display of passion, honesty and sheer talent, and with any hope, Wainwright won't wait another five years to return to Zoellner.

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