Rufus Wainwright’s playfully titled “A Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective” online concert was, as the name would suggest, delightfully retrospective. The livestream series moves chronologically through Wainwright’s opus, with the October 16th installment covering the second half of his first album (Rufus Wainwright). Peppered with stories about the unavoidable misadventures that come with such a lengthy, diverse career, it was also a deliciously casual offering to dedicated fans; an exclusive club for Wainwright enthusiasts to gather and exchange memories about their shared passion for his music. The live audience chat was a haven for nostalgia, sprinkled with the disparate musical experiences of followers around the world.
Wainwright is well known for his grand, operatic songwriting style, (in addition to his many songs, he’s the composer of two full operas) but his delivery in Friday’s concert was quite intimate—vulnerable, even. His knowledge of music theory and form were omnipresent throughout the show, however, and each song was an impeccable combination of idiomatic classical music, surprising melodies and fresh, colorful lyrics. It’s challenging to categorize his style: his music steers clear of pop and contemporary and stems from the classical tradition, but it still somehow possesses an era-defying vitality.
Wainwright is also apparently not the type of guy to write songs about frivolous subjects. He often prefaced each number with a detailed and often emotional tale about what exactly the lyrics are about, and why they are meaningful to him.
“Beauty Mark,” which began the program, spoke of the impression Wainwright’s mother made on him early in life—her black hair, hazel eyes and most of all, her beauty mark. The lyrics also touched on her acceptance of his sexuality, he sings: “I may not be so manly, but still I know you love me.” This courage and honesty enables a stronger, more authentic connection between audience and performer. Quick, upbeat and harmonically inventive, the song was performed solely by Wainwright on piano. Given the complexity of the music, that in itself was an impressive feat.
Next was “Barcelona,” this time performed with the help of Brian Green on guitar and Jacob Mann on piano. Wainwright joked about how he’d written the song largely based on stereotypes and misconceptions he’d picked about the city, without ever having been there. The lyrics reference bullfighting and flamenco dancing, which Wainwright chuckled about as he explained that none of those things actually happen in Barcelona.
The raw talent and expertise of the performers was clearly discernible, as Wainwright shunned electronic instruments and over-produced tracks in his arrangements. There was an almost-classical dedication to organic, intricate, rehearsed musicianship—a rarity in today’s crowded popular music scene. Indeed, Wainwright’s virtuosity would be right at home in a concert of Ravel or Rachmaninoff.
“Barcelona” was followed by “Matinee Idol,” a catchy tango about the early death of Wainwright’s idol and inspiration, River Phoenix. Bouncy yet somber, the song recalled classical Spanish composers like Isaac Albéniz. The next two songs, “Damned Ladies” and “Sally Ann” drew power and inspiration from Wainwright’s operatic background. While the former was dense, and laments the tragedies that often befall heroines in classic opera, the latter presented an unexpected purity of harmony and simple lyrics about love and life. In between numbers, Wainwright chatted candidly with friends (one of them Jamie Lee Curtis, comfortably seated on the sofa) about his struggles with addiction, and how his life has influenced his music. It was akin to a live memoir, enfolding before the audience’s eyes.
The last track performed off Wainwright’s album Rufus Wainwright (1998) was “Imaginary Love.” Buoyed by Mann’s expert synth accompaniment, the song took on a dreamy, exultant character, bouncing off the walls of Wainwright’s small living room and into the homes of listeners scattered across the planet. It seemed to carry his varied retrospections and remembered experiences with it, wafting them along like a gentle breeze.