Rufus Wainwright is back with new pop-oriented material with Unfollow the Rules and also a new tour, leading him to DC and The Anthem on a recently cooling early Autumn night.
This pop reinvention follows Wainwright’s work on an opera, Prima Donna (his second; the first being Hadrian) and an LP of songs based on the work of William Shakespeare. (Shakespeare and the opera play heavily throughout his body of work as far back as his debut and “Damned Ladies” — one to definitely check out!)
I can still remember seeing Rufus Wainwright over 20 years ago at Fletcher’s in Baltimore — a small room above a bar. That was March 16, 1999. Now seeing Wainwright’s headlining show at The Anthem on Sept. 28, it all came back — but this time, experiencing that voice on a much bigger stage in a hall that let that vibrato soar was exhilarating.
On his current tour, Rufus has been performing with, and alongside (more about that in a moment) José González, the Swedish singer whose masterful guitar style is both soothing and captivating. After an amazing set by González, Wainwright took the stage, accompanied by Jacob Mann on keys, Alan Hampton on bass / double bass, and Brian Green on guitar. As Rufus explained to the crowd, before Covid-19 put the brakes on so much of the touring musical world nearly two years ago now, the vision for his next tour was going to have costume changes and theatrical flourishes, similar to the “All These Poses” tour Wainwright had for the 20th anniversary of his debut in 2019. But as we witnessed that night, the music made by this masterful quartet and Wainwright’s own story-telling made for a pretty magical night.
Watch the official music video for “Trouble in Paradise” by Rufus Wainwright on YouTube:
Rufus, wearing a blazer, took the stage to huge applause and started with the opening song from Unfollow the Rules, “Trouble in Paradise.” One thing that struck me immediately is how strong his voice is! Maybe because it’s been so long since I’d seen him perform, but Rufus Wainwright has one heck of a vocal range and he writes songs that bring that talent out front and center. And these songs on Unfollow are some of his best, especially the title track with brilliant lines like “Sometimes I reel in a fish far too small / Back into the sea, hook, sinker and all” and the refrain that I keep coming back to in my own head, “I’m no Hercules / And this is Herculean / Tomorrow I will just be feeling the pain.”
Wainwright introduced one of the most fun songs on the new album, “You Ain’t Big,” as possibly now having a double meaning in the advent of Covid-19 with both meaning back years ago you had to make it big in the heartland of America and, well, you can guess from there.
Most of the evening’s set was from the new LP, though Rufus did play a brilliant “Poses” which makes my mind wander back to the first time I heard it in my first apartment, tiny with no television and only records to play over and over again (and certainly one of my favorites if you couldn’t tell) on piano without the rest of the band. And then there was the equally beautiful “Argentina” which was dedicated to Wainwright’s husband, Jörn.
Rufus Wainwright, who had also put together a live album of songs by Canadian artists celebrating Canada’s 150th Anniversary called Northern Stars, then brought José González back to the stage to sing two tunes from the album: “Harvest” by Neil Young and “So Long, Marianne,” by the brilliant Leonard Cohen.
But one of the best moments of the night was what Wainwright described as a sad and angry song — but one that had a up-tempo beat called “Hatred.” It started with Rufus and a piano and built up from there with his voice cutting through everyone in the concert hall. He continuously added guitar and harmonies to the mix, until the end when he threw out his arms and pronounced, “and we’re gonna be alright,” breaking the tension.
Ending the night, Wainwright played the poignant “Going to a Town,” a song written 14 years ago but is maybe even more powerful in the light of Trumpism, white nationalism, and the devastation of war. The best shows are sometimes the ones that leave an impression and this one certainly has.
Rufus Wainwright continues his US tour through October and then across the pond. Definitely catch him wherever you can.
Here are images of Rufus Wainwright performing at the Anthem on Sept. 28, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.