Rufus Wainwright might just be Lucifer. Think about it: the brightest of angels; too smooth, too charming, so cute that every man and woman in the place would be sorely tempted. With his careless grace, turned up nose and shaggy, side-burned appearance, Rufus Wainwright decidedly enchanted St. Louis at Mississippi Nights on May 8th.
Playing a few cuts from his first album, a couple of covers, a dash of operetta, and all the most delicious cuts from his latest, great Poses CD [Dreamworks], Wainwright moved comfortably back and forth from piano to acoustic guitar, backed up by a tight group of four musicians and vocalists (Teddy Thompson on guitar and backup vocals, John Ballinger on clarinet, oboe and strings, Jeff Hill on bass, “Mr. Butch” on drums and backup vocals, and Rufus’ sister, Martha Wainwright with back-up vocals). Wainwright played around with his melodies and arrangements a bit, speeding up the tempo on the “Greek Song” to give it more of a Caribbean feel. His velvet-plush timbre seduced us with his devilish “a little bit deadly” chorus on “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, bounced us West to “California”, hypnotized us and then gently levitated everyone to the heavens with his stunning title track, “Poses.”
For real fans, the best part of a live show is often the between song banter, when the audience can really get a feel for the person behind the music. And in dishing out this banter, Rufus also did not disappoint. Throughout the evening, his lilting, easy melodies almost always transitioned into jokes and stories. He spoke of visiting the Missouri Botanical Gardens earlier in the day, said how he hadn’t been there since he was a kid lead soprano in a treble choir. “I was the diva!” he gushed, laughing, “In between then and now I went to Versailles and somehow it kind of fucked me up.” He mentioned a friend who said St. Louis is really “spread out” and he said, “Yeah, like butter.” Then, as if policing his own comments he burst out, “Where did that come from? That was totally bizarre!” He dissed Star Wars’ star Natalie Portman, (“That bitch is cute as a button! A terrible actress, but cute as a button!”) and during one of the livelier piano tunes he wondered out loud if there was a cure for sweat blindness (“I’m blinding myself with my sweat! There’s got to be something for sweat blindness…something they use in the porno industry”).
During “Evil Angel” a cello was brought into the mix, carrying listeners through a dreamy fog—the entire song like a dark tunnel rising, rising into light oboe notes and then ultimately a jamming psychedelic surprise which Rufus took full advantage of—with a momentary striptease to the bump and grind percussion.
Perhaps the highest, finest moment of the show was Wainwright’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s stunning, “Hallelujah”:
There's a blaze of light/In every word/It doesn't matter which you heard/The holy or the broken Hallelujah
It’s a song that dares to look God in the eye and ask, “Why?” The combination of Rufus’ capable, emotive voice, Martha’s angelic background vocals, and those killer lyrics left the audience washed over inside and out, cleansed and reflecting in a gleeful mist.
But Rufus didn’t let it stay deep for too long. “I’m gay, but I’ve got the heart of a football player!” he boasted, and soon roused the entire place into singing happy birthday to sis Martha as they served her a cake Fed-Exed by their Mom (“inside it’s got the secret plans from the Al Queda!” he joked). Wainwright then transitioned into a cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” (to which he also said contained Al Queda messages).
An encore took us into “Instant Pleasure” from the first album, and he sang the naughty, haughty lyrics, “I don’t want somebody to love me,” looking jaunty, disheveled, and completely adorable. The piano ballad, “The Tower of Learning” was so exquisite you’d hand him your soul for another song, and we must have unknowingly done just that as he came out onstage again for a second encore that included “In My Arms” and “Complainte De La Butte”.
Opener Martha Wainwright performed solo and did a few songs with her brother as well. Martha’s music, well-known in folkier circles, could be the soundtrack for a film of dusty Oklahoma prairie life, or maybe Appalachia in twangier moments. As Martha complimented Rufus so exceedingly well, he also brought life and harmony to the songs he backed up for her. Without a doubt, Martha Wainwright has the star talent too. Her trouble is, she doesn’t have her brother’s entrancing songs.