Rufus Wainwright performed at McCarter Theatre last Saturday. It was a gorgeous weekend all around, though less so as Saturday waned and Sunday’s clouds arrived unfashionably early. I freely admit to never having heard a lick of Rufus Wainwright’s recorded music. Wainwright’s is one of those singer-songwritery names that lurks around the back of my mind with “Ben Folds,” “Duncan Sheik,” “Jeremy Enigk,” and “Mason Jennings.” Such a name, Sheik.
Wainwright is scruffy-generic, handsome like a smoothed-out Bowie. On Saturday, he wore a T-shirt printed with “Opera Hunk,” and tight red pants. People rose from their seats when he took the stage. It was a strange thing, being introduced to a guy like Rufus as part of a roaring crowd of people who already knew him. Everybody—the smiling old people, the moms, the couples with young children—got it, I think, “got” what this grinning pop peacock wrapped up in sensitive skin was about. All in all, it was a strange slice of Caucasiana doubling in on itself, that nice boy who makes the nice music turning out to have been singing about a “Gay Messiah” “baptized in cum” and high school boy-crushes all along.
Wainwright knows how to game a crowd: pretty town you got here; how about that Pope in New York blocking all the roads; boy, is the pollen out in full force. That last comment received many whoops and hollers and “Oh yeah!”s of agreement from the, at this point, frenzied audience. This was, to be fair, a particularly gameable crowd: middle-aged women, families with children, young and old couples. But Wainwright’s an affable guy, laughing at his missed notes and forgotten lyrics in the middle of a song. I messed up in the middle of a piano recital once, when I was 12 or 13. After a few seconds of fumbling, I couldn’t recover the note that had derailed me, so I just walked off stage without finishing the piece. My mother made me go back after the recital and apologize to everyone in the audience. Incidentally, I had my first rugalach earlier that day, after lunch; it was flaky and buttery and delicious.
Wainwright is a fine pianist, and an engaging enough vocalist. There’s a show tune streak in his playing that’s peppered with hand-crossing piano lines straight out of Tin Pan Alley. His songs are inviting but deceptively difficult, with simple but wending vocal lines and lyrics whose creamy braggadocio betrays the aching-white-boy-at-a-piano-ness of their delivery. There was a song about a childhood friend named Zebulon, one dedicated to his boyfriend Jorn, one for the ladies (more whooping), the cheerful/not cheerful one with which he cryptically closed his set. A certain sadness leaked through the goofy banter as he haltingly saluted his famous father, recalled the deaths of River Phoenix and Heath Ledger, and dedicated a song to the lost innocence of youth (he’s 34). He’s a feelings guy, but not irritatingly so.
People loved it. During a song called “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” a frog-throated woman sitting behind me shouted out the last word of a lyric (“mess!”) in anticipation of Wainwright actually singing it. Rufus doubled over in laughter at this. There was a man in the second or third row—Rufus’ biggest, wettest fan—who rocketed out of his seat after every song to clap vigorously. After the show, when the lights came up and I could see this guy clearly, he still had a big grin on his face, but otherwise looked differently than I had imagined, boyish and overgrown but a little older and unhappier than I had expected.
Rufus’s auntie, Sloan Wainwright, opened for him and joined him for two songs later in his set. There are a lot of famous Wainwrights, the back of my mind reminds me, with names like Loudon III and Martha. I’d like to learn of a Bain ‘Skip’ Wainwright who yodels and plays washboard somewhere in the family, but in all likelihood, he does not exist. Quipping about playing a set in Princeton, Wainwright shared that he got a 960 on the SAT, was rejected by Columbia, flunked out of McGill, and dropped out of art school. There’s a fairly standard set of topics for banter that you whip out when you play piano on a stage for nice people in Princeton. I bet even Ree-hard Strauss had to talk about test scores and flunking out when he performed in Princeton.
Wainwright’s voice is chalky, pinched in the upper registers and surprisingly sleepy, despite his affectations of crooning. Which is to say that he does the best cover of Leonard Cohen’s (not, rest-in-peace, Jeff Buckley’s) “Hallelujah” I’ve ever heard. He launched right into the song at the end of his first encore, to more whooping and hollering. Save for a gratuitous echo effect added to his mike every time he sang the word “hallelujah” in the song, Wainwright’s cover was suffused with ennui, something sickly and sticky-beautiful for the nice families and couples. Thanks to J. Buckley, the O.C., Zach Braff, and Imogen Heap, a kind of bland, nonspecific sadness has, over the song’s quarter-century existence, supplanted Cohen’s parched depression as the song’s key emotional signifier. Wainwright’s robotic piano and wan drawl return “Hallelujah” to Cohen’s nest. Wainwright does not turn his “you”s at the end of lines to “ya,” does not hover, tremblingly, over the words as if they were made of sand and could be blown away with sudden movements.
I had not known it, but Wainwright’s act coalesces and suddenly makes sense in his “Hallelujah.” The stretched, ropy singing; the respectful, almost fearful piano playing; the secret forlornness of the lyrics; Wainwright a-ha! cloaks these insecurities in leisure-class languor and dolls it up with opera and Broadway brass. The crowd tried to clap with the beat at a few points during the show, but it never went anywhere; heck, there were never enough people who could even find the beat. These songs are fundamentally shifting and testy and very young, with Wainwright testing the boundaries of his masquerade with every vaudeville nod and gleaming grin.
Leaving the auditorium after the show, ambling in slow procession toward the exit with the rest of the crowd, I found myself behind two bikerish-looking guys talking about Rufus. “I thought he killed,” one said. “Yeah,” said the other, nodding, “But I’m pretty sure Tim would’ve hated it.” They ate him up, they really did.