Picture by David Vagg
Enmore Theatre, February 26
For all his obvious showmanship, and a man who entered the stage for the second set in an oversized, heavily worked jacket and augmented pants which made him look like a spangly patchwork doll, and then switched to a kind of faux black-feather cape, is most certainly a showman, Rufus Wainwright is not very good at faking it.
As someone who tours as much as he does – the albums and the operas aren’t really going to pay the bills – that is an occupational hazard of course, especially if you would rather be home nailing that troublesome aria you’ve been struggling with instead of singing another song from Want II you could do in your sleep.
He’ll always put on a show, but when his heart isn’t in it it is pretty easy to see: the eyes and chat distracted, the delivery professional but lacking something, the energy there but not really “there”. And a tour marking the 20th anniversary of his self-titled debut, while also celebrating his breakthrough second album, Poses, ran the risk of ennui.
There was none.
Sporting a moustache which could only be called dapper, Wainwright was light and breezy without being flippant, in touch with those early songs while not overloading them with retrospective gravitas, and enjoying himself in sparkles and in repose.
With a full band and more recent material such as his newest song, Sword Of Damocles, done with a dark eye at an orange president; and Going To A Town, tartly reminding us that a dumb nation didn’t start with this president, Wainwright wasn’t stuck in full retro mode.
Well, ok, there was one retro excess: too often there was a heavy handed application of double/triple synths which upped the sonic cheese factor and undercut the freshness of some of these arrangements. It wasn’t necessary.
That the highlight of the first set was a cover is more than excused by the fact it was a slow, elegant version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now where Wainwright (having long since discarded his top hat and the long jacket of his pinstripe suit to reveal what may well have been a lamé tank top) could slide up and down its minor peaks like a freeform skier.
In any case, that first set, where eight of the debut’s 12 songs were done (one more, Imaginary Love, coming in the encore) did serve to emphasise just how much talent was evident early, but also how his songwriting was not yet fully formed.
While Beauty Mark was jaunty pop rock, Danny Boy was a little stiff, a song that was always looking for a way to break free but was held in, much like the swing more hinted at than delivered. Similarly, Barcelona, done slow and acoustically, and Millbrook, seem in retrospect a sign of what was to come rather than definite statements.
More confident and more successfully realised, Poses as presented here showed Wainwright’s pop sense was firing, the breadth and quality of something like the complex layers of Tower Of Learning confirming the promise of that first album, and also showing what could be done with freedom.
This second set – where it’s worth noting, the album was played in full, and in order – was regularly enlivened by unalloyed pleasures, whether the ‘70s west coast style of California and the throwback Euro saunter of Rebel Prince, or the sombre pair of Evil Angel and In A Graveyard, done quietly at the piano.
The gliding style we had heard in that Joni cover had its echo in the half-shucked Greek Song and the elongated manner of his delivery of The Consort, and you can see why some people just don’t get, or just don’t want, the Wainwright style.
But then, they weren’t in the room were they? And frankly, if they can’t see the splendour of Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, the sauciest “clean” song about living anything but clean, by now, there’s no hope for them.
Rufus Wainwright plays Canberra Theatre, February 28; Auckland Town Hall, March 2; Opera House, Wellington, March 3.