Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Rufus Wainwright Dazzles Chicago

Rufus Wainwright doesn’t make it easy on listeners.  Rarely allowing a simple melody to flourish without turning it on its head and ripping its insides out, Rufus’s collections of compositions are sometimes as difficult to digest in one sitting as a thirteen course meal (which reminds me of Emperor Joseph’s line in Amadeus: “There are simply too many notes.”).  But the listener who’s able to hang in there and familiarize himself with material is unquestionably rewarded.

At the Bank of America Theater in Chicago on Friday night, Rufus took the whole “difficult listening experience” one step further by requesting that the audience remain silent for the first set, during which he performed in its entirely his latest release, “All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu,” an album devoted to his recently departed mother.  He later admitted that his request for silence was rather audacious, though I thought it was more self-indulgent.  But what the hell.  So is this blog.  The talents of Rufus Wainwright are so staggering that I’m willing to laugh off a little bit of narcissism gone awry, especially when it’s followed up with a more colloquial and lighter second set.

Wainwright’s setlist repeated only three songs from his tour in 2007, making Friday’s concert an entirely different experience than the one captured on last year’s DVD release, “Milwaukee At Last.”   If the song selection wasn’t enough to breathe new life into his performance, the lack of a seven piece band practically guaranteed it.  Rather than attempting to reproduce note for note the elaborate productions of previous albums, Rufus’s only accompaniment was his piano and on a few well-chosen selections, his sister (and opening act) Martha’s vocals.

If there’s a more technically proficient piano player today in pop music, I haven’t heard it.  Fresh off the heels of his 2009 opera, “Prima Donna,” Rufus’s piano playing continues to astound.  He takes what artists like Elton John and Billy Joel started in the 70s and extends the boundaries of pop piano far closer to Chopin than to Jerry Lee Lewis.  Some of the playing bordered on absurd, as Rufus struggled to maintain his singing voice while balancing the ivory tightrope on the latter half of “The Dream,” both of his hands mounting their respective edges of the keyboard simultaneously.

Adorned in black with a 17-foot train during the first set, and an orange suit in the second, both Rufus and the audience made up for the concert’s quiet first-half by celebrating a more light-hearted second half, as Rufus offered self-effacing jokes and stories about his mother and departed musician Jeff Buckley, for whom the song "Memphis Skyline" was written.

Two albums that were entirely ignored on his last tour finally got their due, as Wainwright plucked gems from his self-titled debut and “Poses,” as well as five songs from his oft-overlooked collection “Want Two.”  Added to the repertoire were two French songs performed with his sister, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and his mother’s “Walking Song.” 

Rufus has already stated that his next album will have to be a pop record, and I’ll be curious to see if he can reign in his obvious talents a bit and create a true pop masterpiece, or if he'll continue to challenge his fans in ways that are sometimes exhausting.  Either way, I’ll be listening.

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