Despite the unsubstantiated rumours going around that Rufus Wainwright would be supported by his singing sibling, Martha, it was a small, slightly scruffy man that took the stage in front of us, in Vicar Street on the 26th October 2004. Introducing himself as Ollie Cole, from the Dublin band Turn, he proceeded to give an impromptu 7 song set – impromptu in that not only did Cole do requests, and occasionally forgot the words to the songs, but also managed to check his text messages (and reply) between songs.
Not detracting from the music in any way (which was very good, moving from Turn staples such as “In Position” and “Forward”, to a beautiful cover of Elliot Smith’s “Angeles”, before finally ending on Loudon Wainwright III’s “One Man Guy” – and of course apologising to Rufus for stealing his father’s song), you couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at Cole’s lack of organisation at times. Perhaps the result of a late phone call looking for Cole as a support act?
Wainwright himself began on a dubious note – singing “Grey Gardens” from his second album, Poses, he looked distinctly uncomfortable wrapped in a green scarf, and signalling for something to drink several times. However, removing the scarf, and launching into “Pretty Things” from his latest, Want One, we got to see the Rufus that we know – utterly unique – an operatically trained voice, singing ballads and up-tempo songs with equal gusto. His albums contain lush melodies and musical landscapes, so it was an amazing sight to see Wainwright manage to convey the same power in his songs with just a piano or a guitar, depending on his mood.
Wainwright mixed songs from Poses, Want One, and the upcoming Want Two, swapping between piano and guitar every 5 songs or so – from the humour of “Gay Messiah” to the sad longing of “11.11”, Wainwright mixed music with humour – showing us his new pants, he talked about the New Ireland – “Liberated, Diverse…Expensive!”
The 1st major highlight of the show appeared halfway in. Singing the amazing “Vibrate”, accompanying himself on the piano, Wainwright held notes like the audience held its breath – seemingly for minutes at a time. Then Wainwright moved into his longest monologue, discussing his history with Jeff Buckley: how he wasn’t allowed in to Sin E in New York to see Buckley play, and hated him for it, until Rufus met him just a few weeks before Buckley’s tragic death, and spent an evening with this man that he would now never forget. This monologue segued into a beautiful song, “Memphis Skyline”, describing one singer finding another dead, before segueing further, into Leonard Coen’s “Hallelujah” – a song Buckley made his own.
Despite the loveliness of Wainwright’s version, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling disappointed that, as often happens, a cover of a famous song overshadows the current singers set. People gasped and applauded as “Hallelujah” rang out, but it’s a pity that Wainwright’s set didn’t garner this sort of reaction, when it really deserved to.
As the set unfolded, moving through “Matinee Idol” and “Want” (with Wainwright conjecturing about not wanting to “be John Lennon, or Leonard Cohen, just want to be my dad”), you could feel change in the room – people were realising how special this talent is. People were as rapt as I’ve seen, while Wainwright himself was utterly lost in the music – you felt that he could have been playing to an audience of 5, rather than a nearly-full Vicar Street, and still inject the same emotion into every song.
The stunning “Art Teacher”, again, off the upcoming Want Two, was another highlight, with its description of a young woman imagining that her art teacher is the most beautiful thing in the museum that they are visiting.
The set finished on a beautiful double header – two songs, one each for his mother (“”Beauty Mark”, discussing her influences on him during his life “But I do have your tastes / I never had it, I never wanted it, I never had your Beauty Mark”) and his father (“Dinner At 8″). Wainwright’s parents are both themselves world-renowned singers and these two songs dealt with acknowledging his mother’s ideas and influences, and his mixed fear, love and appreciation for his father, alternatively. “Dinner at 8″, especially, may be Wainwright’s most autobiographical song: “But ’til then no, Daddy, don’t be surprised, If I wanna see the tears in your eyes/I’m gonna break you down And see what you’re worth, What you’re really worth to me”.
An encore followed, of “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk” (a song dedicated to loving what’s harmful to him – an interesting choice for a man fresh out of rehab); an a capella “A Little Irish Ditty”; before finishing on “Poses”, with its lyrics dealing again with the shallowness of life (“Life is a game and true love is a trophy, And you said, Watch my head about it”).
Walking away, you feel Wainwright managed to gain himself more than a few new converts to his very special type of music. Despite the absence of personal favourites such as “14th Street” and “Movies of Myself”, Wainwright managed to convert the multi-layered songs of his albums, to a piano or guitar simplification accompanied by the richest voice in the business today.
Coming from a musical family with a history such as his has, you couldn’t help but smile and think that Mum and Dad would be proud.