D’you know those stop-frame films you see of flowers coming to bloom; papery petals uncurling delicately, jerking their way outwards and skywards, opening fully at the end to reveal their true beauty? That’s exactly like the understated elegance of a Rufus Wainwright melody.
We went to see him for the first time on Saturday night. We knew his music – we’ve long steeped ourselves in those early album career highs, Want 1 and Want 2 and we’d marvelled once again at the classy major 7ths and restrained dynamics of the pocket symphony that is Going To A Town many times over as we got ready to go – so we know how his melodies start simply enough before taking a life of their own to soar upwards beyond the sun and moon, but we weren’t quite prepared for just how powerful it all is in the live setting.
Man! That Rufus can sing! At Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Bandstand it’s just him, his ruby red slippers and his piano, occasionally his guitar, so there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s open aired, the cultured audience is supping on wine and gin and craft beers and the weather is dry. They want to be entertained and Rufus’s voice wafts across the venue, ear therapy for the non-moshers of the world. The voice is the one true star. That and the piano playing. He can play the fuck out of that thing. Triplets on the bass notes, rippling runs from the very top of the scales that cascade down and up and down again, thunderous chords and jarring discordant atonalities – Rufus can do it all.
“That’s a bit too Tchaikovksy,” he self-deprecates as he brings one of Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk‘s final verses to a flamboyant false ending, before proceeding to play Satie-inflected freeform jazz to close it out. Genius is an oft-overused word these days. Not so much virtuoso, perhaps, but Rufus is clearly a bit of both.
He plays Vibrate, its Britney Spears-referencing lyric resonating with the capacity crowd. The voice is crystal clear, fluttering between notes, finding in the spaces new notes that don’t exist in normal singers’ registeries. He fluffs a line in the chorus, mutters ‘fuck it‘ and keeps going. He arrives at the big, showstopping ‘Viiiii….iiii…..iiii….iii….braaa…..aaaaa…..aaaaa…..te‘ line and the audience as one holds its breath for a good 30 seconds until he reaches the end. Get a stopwatch and try it. Then imagine performing it in front of a full house on a Glasgow Saturday night, while playing a grand piano and dressed from the ankles down like Judy Garland. Balls doesn’t begin to describe it. And as for ‘showstopping’…it was third or fourth song in. There was plenty way to go before Rufus would arrive at ‘showstopping’.
The beauty and power and brilliance of the voice is even more obvious whenever Rufus picks up his guitar. He’s a rudimentary player at best, open handedly strumming open chords as if he’s only just been acquanited with six strings. Greek Song‘s clip clopping rhythm, interspersed with a stomp of the red-bowed Dorothy flats at appropriate moments, is a good example. A couple of chords in the verse, the same chords in the chorus, it’s real beginner’s guitar stuff here, yet the voice transends it all. ‘You who were born with the sun above your shoulders,’ he sings to some Greek god, real or imaginary, ‘You turn me on, you turn me on, you have to know.’ The guitar playing is primary school level, but the voice is unteachable. You don’t need to be special on the guitar when the one instrument you’ve been God-given is so divine. How exactly do you squeeze such flyaway melodies from a D chord and an A chord? Exactly where that comes from is anyone’s guess. David Gedge never managed that. I doubt even McCartney could reach some of the melodic heights Rufus reaches.
Rufus Wainwright – Going To A Town
Back for an encore, he slays us with a one-two of Going To A Town and Hallelujah. Going To A Town is stripped back, angry, beautiful and resonant. ‘Do you really think you go to hell for having loved?‘ It’s missing those high female ‘tell mes’ that colour the recorded version, but you barely notice. When he gets to the ‘I may just never see you again‘ line, his voice takes off into orbit, two thousand folk hanging on to its wispy trail. Astonishing stuff.
I can’t be doing with Hallelujah, truth be told. It’s overplayed. TV reality shows have killed that for me. Even Jeff Buckley’s peerless version hasn’t been heard within these four walls for many a year. Yet Rufus nails it, the voice off and out into the West End ether as he takes a theatrical bow and leaves us with a final glimpse of his beautiful hair, backlit in orange and red and blue, the crowd on its feet and ecstatic. I might’ve liked a 14th Street or a Go Or Go Ahead to complete the night, but I ain’t complainin’. Rufus Wainwright understands the old adage of leave ’em wanting more. A proper showman, he more than delivers.
From one golden voiced vocalist to another, here’s George Michael‘s faithful reworking of Going To A Town. A master interpreter, he knew a good tune when he heard it. You knew that already though.
George Michael – Going To A Town