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Concert Review: Rufus Wainwright, The Centre in Vancouver, July 28

“Do I love you, and the way you treat me so indifferently? Or is it the medication? …Or is it me?”

Rufus croons the opener.

Before Rufus Wainwright even took the stage at The Centre for the Performing Arts on Homer Street on Saturday night, I’m sure there were many in the audience handwringing a little about what was going on outside. Namely, the second night of the Celebration of Light annual fireworks competition (Canada was doing the honours on that particular evening) and its usual event in counterpoint, the annual Illuminares Lantern Festival put on as a fireworks alternative by the Public Dreams Society. Which, in my mind, meant everyone at that concert had been asked by someone, at some point, at least once, “Are you going to [the fireworks / Illuminares] on Saturday?” and everyone of them had said, “No, I’m going to see Rufus Wainwright.” (While in line outside waiting to enter the venue, we noted that Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan may have been among those who chose to spend their evening this way.)

So Rufus may have had a few expectations to settle. This is at least the fourth time I’ve seen Rufus perform live, and the second time I’ve seen him as a headliner. His newest album Release the Stars is a fair departure from his previous work, more so than the previous ones have been, so I was curious to see how this would manifest in his stage show.

Most of us were probably still being seated by the ushers during Sarah Slean’s opening performance. I haven’t had much exposure to her music, but she definitedly validated Hanson’s opinion of her to me performing live – her voice with the piano worked equally well for both the unreleased material she had written during a stint in Paris, and the popular rolicker like Sweet Ones. Her wry humour worked for Richard.

And what to say of Rufus? He opened with the closing title track of his album and my first thought was, “Oh my, he’s doing Burt Bacharach.” His band was outfitted in shiny brooches, he was wearing a shiny striped suit, and deploying Grade-A Cheesy Hand Gestures that I had never recalled seeing – because he was usually playing the piano or the guitar. “Surely this is a joke,” I thought, “some kind of cheesy in-joke that will all be explained in good time.”

Rufus in Drag.

He revealed about two songs in that the brooches were alluding to the American flag parody he had on the back of the stage, where the black and white stripes represented racial tensions, and the sparkly butterflies and flowers taking place of the stars were “all the good things that can save America.” The hand gestures would be there to stay, alas; but he spent roughly 85% of the concert working an instrument, so I surmise that they are part of his repertoire for want of something to do with his hands. Or for the Judy Garland parts.

Over the course of the evening, he steadily worked his way through the entire new album, peppering it with the occasional piece from Wants One and Two. The biggest change from his previous performances is by far the absence of his sister Martha, who added very distinctive, strong, and sometimes overbearing backing vocals. Rufus opted this time to tour with a 3-man horn section, consisting of french horn, trumpet, saxophone, and various varieties of flute at different times. They added an entirely new dimension to his performance, and were also stuck doing the occasionally very high and acrobatic backup vocals. Since Rufus made ample use of these instruments in the studio versions of many of his songs, they fit right in.

I surmised early on in the show that Rufus has broken with the past, not dipping into any old fan favorites from his first two albums once, not even during the encore (though the song that he contributed for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack sans English was close) – no, Rufus is only looking to the future, which includes a DVD of his live tribute performances to Judy Garland, and an opera he’s been penning in Berlin. He previewed some of those Judy Garland covers for us, though I would’ve been thrilled to have seen him do Over the Rainbow. Hopefully I’ll get my wish when the DVD rolls around.

He also performed Macushla, an Irish Folk song accompanied by the double bass and his horn section without vocal amplification. His voice filled the Center quite well from my seat in Row 8, though all I could hear in my mind while I was watching him was my elementary school choir teacher who told us not to tip our heads back while singing as it elongates our chest cavity. Rufus can make up for it, I guess. And he did give us the caveat that he is not an opera singer.

“I will never be as cute as you, according to the board of human relations.”

His band included a mix of familiar faces from his previous tours (Jeff Hill on bass, Jeff Pettrizelli on guitar), some faces familiar to me from other places (Gerry Leonard aka Spooky Ghost on the atmospheric guitars, and Matt Johnson on drums, two guys whose names I know from listening to Duncan Sheik) as well as the new horn section.

At this point, I probably leaned over to Richard and whispered something about Rufus being an energizer bunny. Granted, he did take a 20-minute intermission, after which he emerged in lederhosen, but this guy was giving no signs of stopping soon. After the band intros and false ending to bring in the encore, Rufus, ever the dramatist, came out in a bathrobe, did a couple of songs, then slipped on earrings, heels, a hat and lipstick to do “Get Happy” with his band, now serving as dancers in tuxedos, to wish us an advanced happy Pride. During the intermission, some audience members remarked that Rufus might have been asking a lot of his band members to wear the brooches, striped shirts and gay-looking attire on stage. When the dancing started, I thought, “Well, they didn’t know the half of it.” Then again, who could claim that touring with Rufus was just another support gig after all this? Judging by pictures on flickr, there’s nary a dull moment touring with Rufus.

Dancing aside, Rufus was his usual diva at this concert, repeatedly commenting on the state of his monitors, and stopping two songs (one with his band, IIRC) in favour of starting them over from the top. His voice was as great as I’ve ever heard it.

All in all, I was sad to have missed the lantern festival, but he definitely did his darnedest to make it worth it to us.

(The Vancouver Sun says almost everything that I say in fewer words.)

(Thanks Pamberry on flickr for the pretty pictures, even though I was griping to myself about your LCD screen during the concert. Her set has the rest of her pictures.)

ETA: Nice to see that Rufus continues to set teenaged girls’ hearts ablaze by being such a gracious fag to the hags in the training. Ah, those were the days…


  1. Katie

    Oh I wish I could have been there. It sounds like it was wonderful. Can’t believe he did “get happy”, I remember performing that! hehe…

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 3:52 am | Permalink
  2. Ice Queen

    I saw Rufus in Toronto in June. It was magnificent.

    But the finale was the best. Those back-up guys looked like they were having a lot of fun.

    And I’m glad Martha wasn’t there. I’m not as fond of her voice.

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 8:44 am | Permalink

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