Feb 15, 2008

The Voice Shall Lead Us

The first time I saw Rufus Wainwright live was in his appearance at the Henry Fonda Theatre way back around the turn of the millennium. He was quite offhandedly good, though rather diffident and giggly. At the time I was both smitten with and jealous of his amazing first record, as much of an annunciation of a blistering new talent as the definitive first albums of Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, or Liz Phair, although even closer to home for me--something about Rufus's musical imagination, the aesthetic landscape of his brain, seemed immediately familiar to this child of Beatles, folk, showtunes, and classical piano. I felt pretty much the same about his second album, Poses, and though I've kept up with his albums since, and I'm pretty fond of a lot of his newest, Release the Stars, nothing he's done has equaled the impact of those first two albums for me.

Until, that is, last night at Radio City Music Hall. I know I'm late to the new-model Rufus, with his Judy Garland and drag dispensations, but it all somehow makes sense to my ear and gut. It all fits together--not neatly, by any means, but with the logic of a collage. At bottom, Rufus is just an incredibly smart and informed and passionate pop craftsman; his wide taste in pop just happens to extend back to John McCormack's Irish weeper "Macushla," which he performed last night without the benefit of a microphone, to John Lennon's "Across the Universe," which he performed in a white rathrobe with opening act Sean Lennon. To me, last night his sound evoked everyone from Noel Coward to Thom Yorke, from Puccini to Neil Diamond--sometimes in one song. After all, the road from La Scala to Tin Pan Alley to Abbey Road is really not all that long, if you know the way.

I guess I don't always hear or feel all these buttons pushed when I listen to his records. But live, the guy has the dramatic vocal presence of the greatest singers I've had the privilege of hearing live--Dawn Upshaw, Maria Ewing, k.d. lang, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez. Who can ask for anything more?

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