By Oliver Wang
Better than: …the ham elevator next door at UMAMIcatessen
At the Orpheum last night, Rufus Wainwright opened his show by beginning at the end. “Candles,” which closes his new Out of the Game album, has a reverential, hymnal feel and Wainwright performed the song acapella, backed up with his singers' choral harmonies. It was a quiet but powerful invocation and largely set the tone for the evening: a graceful, relaxed performance punctuated by occasional spikes in emotion and energy.
Given that 1) Wainwright might be the greatest baroque pop star of his generation, 2) he recorded an entire tribute album to Judy Garland and 3) he showed up last night in gold lamé pants, a tuxedo jacket and red slippers, you'd be forgiven for thinking the night would be more showy or mawkish. However, Out of the Game lends itself to neither; Wainwright has described it as his most “pop” album which would make sense if the year were 1977 since the main pop styles he engages seem largely drawn from 1970s easy-listening radio.
For example, early in the show, Wainwright performed “Barbara,” “Welcome to the Ball,” and “Song of You,” all of which play with the kind of stylish, ornamental pop sound of the Electric Light Orchestra or Supertramp. Elsewhere, songs like the title track and “Jericho” bear the subtle folk/country twangs of Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles. It was all quiet pleasant and Wainwright's voice was in top form, but especially in the first third of the show, the pacing and affect were both slow and restrained.
It might have veered toward plodding if not for Wainwright's ad libs and crowd banter. Given that earlier in his career he lived in L.A. for several years, he seemed genuinely affectionate for the city, though he couldn't help but toss a few easy jabs our way. At one point, he looked down at the Orpheum stage, noticing marks in the floor and joked they must have been left by “all those Hollywood hopefuls in their heels.” He also shouted out Silver Lake's Gwen Stefani for starring in his first video (“April Fools”) before playing that song. Oddly, however, his second selection of the night, “Rashida,” was written for Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones, but this went unmentioned.
Wainwright also paid tribute to his late mother, Kate McGarrigle, by including two selections from the upcoming concert film/documentary, Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle. He turned over singing duties to members of his band, including Krystle Warren, who was especially moving on her rendition of McGarrigle's “I Don't Know.”
Wainwright, noting, “I love my dad too,” also played “One Man Guy,” a song originally written by his father Loudon Wainwright III and included on Rufus's Poses album. However, for all this, he avoided layering the night in excess sentimentality; he noted his new song, “Montauk,” was written for his daughter Viva. Its bittersweet reflections on parenthood, aging and mortality skirts the fine line between emotional candor and cheap bathos.
The two encore sessions were a mixed bag; the first opened with “Art Teacher” from Want Two, followed by another McGarrigle song – “On My Way to Town” – this time sung solo on piano by Wainwright, and then ending with “My Bitter Tears,” a quasi-disco-influenced tune from Out of the Game that might easily be the album's worst track, what with its awkward arrangement and an excess of cheesy synthesizers. Wainwright redeemed things by coming out for a second encore and playing the title track — on solo piano again — from Poses, an elegant way to end the night.
Personal Bias: The last time I saw Wainwright, I was with my girlfriend in San Francisco. We went to see him last night together on the 7th anniversary of our wedding weekend.
The Crowd: Slightly squarish, middle age West L.A. meets nattily dressed, young West Hollywood.
Random Notebook Dump: The Orpheum's beautiful, ornate interior was marred by these enormous, snaking wires that lead up to the lighting rig. I know it's an old theater but there isn't a cleaner way to do this?
Wainwright's Response to an Audience Question About Remembering an Ontario Concert from 15 Years Ago: “No. I don't even remember the last song I played.”
Set list below.
Welcome to the Ball
Song of You
The One You Love
I Don't Know
Out of the Game
Sometimes You Need
One Man Guy
Going To a Town
On My Way To Town
My Bitter Tears