Rufus Wainwright – Live at Sydney Opera House; September 9, 2012

It took a while to decide what I thought about the encore.

But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.

Krystle Warren. My personal discovery of Krystle was through the Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake concert held in the Concert Hall at the Opera House in November last year. My review of that concert and my first impressions of her are recorded here in this blog. I’m afraid I missed the start of her set, but I arrived in time to hear her discussing her jet lag and that she would be limiting conversation – a promise soon forgotten as she interrupted her own song to have a light-hearted go at the incredibly sickly audience who seemingly couldn’t stop coughing. Nonetheless her performance was, as I knew it would be, mindblowing. That voice with its dust and depth – lazy comparisons often feature Nina Simone – is just astonishing. And then her interpretation: colour and light delivered through her physical questioning and answering at the mike; interrogating, probing, shying away, returning. And then that moment when she opens her voice out. You can see she isn’t even trying. No protruding veins, no strain. There’s more in the tank, but hey, it’s only the Concert Hall, no need to shout.

After Krystle came Megan Washington. I saw her at Sydney Festival First Night this year, and she was upbeat and poppy and totally absorbed in her moment. This time, the absorption was there, but it was (necessarily) a tighter and more intense experience – just her and her keyboard. She realised the intensity she was bringing, apologising for such melancholy musings, before easing us into her next tale of heartbreak. I have made no secret of my impatience with the modern female singer category which I call the ‘breathy ingenue’ but I don’t put Washington in this set. Her voice definitely has some sweetness, but she has the ability to transition from open clarity to cracks and grain to quiet despair and back to joy and power. It’s a diversity which has delivered her a great deal of respect and love in the music community. She’s also a bit of a laugh. She has a droll sense of humour which is very engaging, such that those thoroughly human moments of stumbling over her words when describing her awe at the company she was keeping that night were charmingly managed. My personal highlight in terms of performance was actually not one of her songs but a cover of Rowland S Howard’s ‘Shivers’. Other reviewers commented they thought it was dragged out, and I can see what they’re saying, but it didn’t detract for me.

Now for Rufus.

It started with Rufus and band coming onto a stage lit only with flickering LED candles to open with an a capella version of ‘Candles’ from Out of the Game. It was nicely done and the darkness gave us a heightened aural platform for appreciating his superior voice and the talent among his band. They merged wonderfully. The moment also reminded me of seeing his father open a show at the Union Chapel in Islington in a similar way, mounting the pulpit in the dark to deliver Steve Goodman’s powerful protest ‘The Ballad of Penny Evans’ a capella. Funny what parallels the mind can draw.

The sudden lighting of the stage revealed all band members wearing sunglasses and Rufus resplendent in the all-white mirror-ball-style suit he had worn for his recent marriage to long-time partner Jorn Weisbrodt. My immediate thought was that he had been to Chris Isaak’s tailor.

What followed was a joyous mix of Rufus’s take on pop, rock, country, folk and Judy Garland which was totally infectious. This was a man in love and the show was a celebration.

Now for the details. First of all, Rufus’ voice is a jewel of a thing. It has diamond-clarity and precision. However it also sometimes has a nasal quality which I find can be hard to take in large doses. Thankfully this wasn’t an issue as he swung easily between the genres which combine to create his singular personal style and create enough variety by asking different things of his wonderful vocal skills.

The man is also a virtuoso in the classical sense. You can hear it in the key selection, progressions and phrasing in a song like ‘Montauk’. It takes no small talent to write an opera (as he has recently done) and Rufus’ more familiar works are infused with that gift and sensibility.

I particularly loved the performances of songs from the new album Out of the Game especially the title track, the aforementioned ‘Montauk’ and the stunning ‘Jericho’ which I have since been unable to get enough of. Other old favourites like ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ kept the crowd, and me, very happy.

This is ‘Jericho’ for those not familiar:

Rufus’ banter was also what I would expect from this sharp-witted family but he adds a little extra wickedness for good measure.

But the show wasn’t all about Rufus.

Since the tragic passing of their mother, Kate McGarrigle, both he and his sister Martha have included tributes to her in their shows. Martha’s performances in her Piaf show last year were goosebump material as she wrestled her own emotions to honour her mother’s craft. It would be a flimsy exercise in amateur psychology to try to understand why Rufus chose to leave it to others. Perhaps he needed a proxy in order to protect the unbridled high of his recent nuptials. Who cares, it was inspired.

First the superb Teddy Thompson came forward, alone but for piano accompaniment, and delivered ‘Saratoga Summer’ in a way which highlighted his beautiful voice and wonderful range. He has made this song his own in recent years and I can see why it’s a favourite.There was an appropriate intensity and tone as he painted Kate’s picture of whimsy and regret at the fading of a summer past. One UK critic noted it made them feel sad for a summer they’d never experienced, which is a nice way to put it. It was a completely gorgeous performance and one you should be able to experience – so click below.

And then came Krystle. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about her, but you should be given the opportunity to understand why. Here’s her performance of Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I Don’t Know’.

So through a combination of Rufus’ wondrous talent and his selection of players, this was a sublime concert which basically made me happy.

But before I close, I must mention the encore.

Some reviewers have been scathing, others lighthearted. It was what I would call a Gay Messiah Bacchanale. It was a heady mix of exuberance, joy, weirdness, self-indulgence and any number of adjectives you might associate with a man on a high after his wedding and who’s looking to shake things up and have a bit of fun. I don’t know that a description will help, but it was like a sketch featuring some bizarre dialogue, the song ‘Gay Messiah’, an extremely buff cupid, Rufus in a toga, some eye-popping (and not entirely explained) props and half the band in their reg grundies.

However, the end result was that I laughed. I laughed a lot. And I danced, and I just did what Rufus asked because I didn’t want to kill the mood – not just the mood in the room, but my own personal mood. I’d had a lovely day, and this concert had been a complete and soul filling experience.

For that I am grateful.

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Martha Wainwright does Piaf

Or rather ‘did’ Piaf.

Another ‘delayed reaction’ piece – rather than a review. Last one was on Lyle Lovett. This one is about Martha Wainwright’s performance of Edith Piaf songs at the Sydney Opera House (SOH) earlier this year (Feb 24, 2011). There’s a link at the end to a full review by Steve Moffatt, and the reason I’m providing it is that it pretty much gives the detail you’d want in a review, and because it sums up some of the experience of being there. But not all of it.

Couple of things to start with. The Concert Hall of the SOH is hardly an intimate space. I know the SOH and Martha have a mutually very fond relationship – and that’s quite a special thing for any performer. However I would have preferred to see her in a closer environment. For me, it would suit her and her style. So I went in with reservations about how it would work and, as I found my seat, I felt a long way away. The staging was set back, and from where I was, I could see all the empty seating behind the stage. It felt cavernous.

Then there was the opening act. All I knew was that it was called Doveman and that Martha’s husband, Brad Albetta, was on bass. And that’s it. I love the lottery that opening acts can present, so was up for it. Then Brad walks out with this young guy who’s carrying a glass of wine, places it on the floor by the piano stool and leans intently over the keys. I felt like a beat poem was only seconds away and, oddly for me, started to recoil. It was a strong reaction. The music was quiet, the singing breathy, the mood self-indulgent – almost maudlin – and the melodies what some might call sophisticated when they mean inaccessible. The jazz influence seemed to me to justify the beat poem expectation. I had to look about to reassure myself we hadn’t been sent back 50 years. And I had to stop myself from walking out. That’s never happened to me before, and I was a little shocked at the sensation.

And then it happened. He spoke.

Suddenly from this seemingly precocious character comes a level of self-aware and self-deprecating wit and intelligence that completely disarmed me. I stopped fidgeting, sat further back in my seat, unfolded my arms and paid a little more attention to Thomas Bartlett. He sang again. Same music, just new ears. A better understanding of the source, however superficial, started to unlock the experience. I wasn’t totally convinced, though. But then a breakthrough.

I was somewhat vindicated in my initial reaction when Bartlett revealed that a friend had asked (dared?) him to recreate an unlikely film soundtrack in the dark Doveman style. I obviously wasn’t the only one who thought he might need to lighten up. Full credit to his wonderful sense of humour that Bartlett completed the task – covering the entire Footloose soundtrack Doveman-style. Genius. This got him a little media attention – as well as legal attention – however a search on YouTube for Doveman and Footloose will get you a medley (which he performed for us) and give you a flavour of why I – and everyone else in the room – ended up eating out of the palm of this guy’s supremely talented hands. But more of that later.

As I said at the start, the review link below gives you the chronological and detailed view of Martha’s performance. I’m not going to rip it off – I’ll let you read it. However I can add my view of the experience.

First – and again, it’s a reservation – she walked on carrying reams of sheet music. I’ve never seen a non-classical performer do that and I found it a little disconcerting to see her need to rely on them so much. I’ve not seen her perform live before – so if this is what she does normally, then OK. However my thought at the time was: ‘Surely, after performing the show a number of times, and recording the album, she knows the words by now?’. All these months later, I’m still at a loss on that point. But I got over it.

Accompanied by members of the SSO, Albetta and Bartlett, Wainwright performed. And I use that term advisedly. Many artists perform, but what I mean is that, for someone normally ensconced (protected?) behind a guitar, this was less about playing a song and more about encapsulating and conveying a time, a place and a culture to an audience whose links to these are tenuous by definition. Many of us know of Piaf, but not all of us speak French, and she deliberately chose the more obscure songs of the Piaf catalogue (with the possible exception of ‘L’accordeoniste’). The result is a requirement to essentially act out the songs in a very physical but also very emotional way.

And I think she succeeded in a way that you don’t get on the album. I’m listening to it as I write – Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris – and what I’m not getting even now is what she achieved in the performance. I have her other two albums as well – and the voice on this latest recording feels the same as it is on the others. Don’t get me wrong – I love her voice – its rasp and quiver, the thinness and fragility that starts in the head, passes down behind the sinuses, seems to catch in the back of the throat then descends to an open vibrato. But what I heard that night was straight from the gut. Her voice in twenty years’ time. Rich, powerful, mature (in the beautifully aged sense).

I also like her humility in her approach to this whole project. From what I’ve seen of her, she’s pretty down-to-earth, and so it would fit that she was initially very scared of the idea of doing it. Or at least of the idea of doing it well. Many have tried and not necessarily succeeded. It’s that humility – which was genuine – that made what we got in the end all the more special.

As a fan, I was also gratified to hear her do her own stuff for a short while in the middle third of the show, back behind the safety of the guitar for a while. It was here that she was able to talk a little more about the loss of her mother Kate McGarrigle (who died in January last year) performing a number of her songs as well. As the review says – this was quite special. Not a dry eye around me.

And it was that – the sense of tribute to two wonderful women by a daughter and a respectful fan – that achieved something else for me. Suddenly the Concert Hall seemed a hell of a lot smaller, and I realised I had been completely drawn in.

And as a footnote – I’ll round off on Thomas Bartlett. Precocious indeed. Not only did he capture the essence of Piaf’s music, he was effortless. There are a lot  of talented pianists in the world. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I do know that there are only two pianists I’ve ever seen who made the rest of the room disappear. Cuban legend Ruben Gonzalez was one. Thomas Bartlett is the other. Would I buy a Doveman album? Probably not. If I did – it would be out of intellectual interest. Could I watch him play? Indefinitely.

Martha Wainwright Review: Steve Moffatt, Sydney Central