You could tell that this has been a rough year for Rufus Wainwright as he sat down at his grand piano at Orchestra Hall on Wednesday night and played a set of dynamic songs that had the complexity and depth of a tragic opera.
Indeed, in Wainwright’s first “song cycle,” the artist seemed to be going for operatic drama—before he came on stage, an announcer read a note from Rufus stating that his performance would be split in half and requesting that audience members not clap during the first set. The lights dimmed, and Wainwright emerged shroud in a purple velvet gown, taking small, deliberate steps to his piano while the screen behind him played images of blinking eyes. This was a far cry from the charismatic Rufus Wainwright that Minneapolitans know and love, but then, Wainwright’s latest album All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu (written for the artist’s late mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in January) is not exactly fluffy. Wainwright treated the performance with all the heartbreaking beauty found on Lulu, showcasing the influences of Shakespeare and the classics. Perhaps there needn’t have been an announcer; the performance was so deeply felt that the audience may have forgotten to applaud as they, too, sank deep into the emotion of the music.
But the second set was an entirely different tone, and Wainwright had changed into a peach-colored pattern suit, all smiles and wit as he indulged the audience. “I could tell we had to sniff each other out at the beginning,” Wainwright said of his previous set, playing a few notes between songs and beaming. “As I was going through the performance, I was thinking, ‘Okay, let’s shed the Midwestern thing and we can go deeper into the Scandinavian darkness!'”
And then it was exuberance and delightful passion as Wainwright powered through the familiar “Poses”, “Memphis Skyline” (a tribute to Jeff Buckley), and “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” with his sister Martha Wainwright, who opened the show, joining him on stage mid-set for a stunning duet on some Piaf-inspired songs. The siblings’ rendition of “Hallelujah” was like having your soul squeezed. (Yeah, that moving.)
Martha Wainwright is herself an accomplished and engaging artist, with all the gusto of Patsy Cline and the edge of Emmylou Harris in her voice, but more varied and showcasing her big, quirky personality. Standing up on stage in her crystal-studded pumps and tempering songs like “Bleeding All Over You” with that trademark Wainwright humor, Martha commanded the stage with a nervous energy. She ended her set with an absolutely flawless a capella cover of Edtih Piaf’s “Le Vie En Rose,” and then dashed off stage.
Between Rufus and Martha Wainwright, every desire of an audience member is totally met; they’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, and they don’t fake anything. Rufus Wainwright’s impeccable tenor and piano chops could fill an arena with sound as big as a full orchestra and still feel as transparently genuine as a man who’s playing just for himself. As Wainwright works his way through life in front of his piano, it’s a privilege to feel like you’re sitting right next to him, taking the same steps forward.