Friday, August 25, 2006

Rufus Wainwright Concert

Rufus Wainwright Concert
Originally Posted on panel-House: December 2003

There were never collected so many fourteen-year-olds, soccer mom chaperones and comfortable, middle-aged gay couples at what could have passed for a drag show as Rufus Wainwright’s 2002 performance at the Vic in Chicago, Illinois. Save for the performer wearing a shabby white undershirt with ratty jeans and sporting shoulder-length, unkempt hair rather than actually being dolled-up, all the motifs of the male transvestite saloon singer’s showcase were present: the piano; the cigarettes; the copious and copulatory pontifications meandering among the songs; the playfully hostile relationship to the audience; bawdy, blue and racially solidaristic humor; and desultory delusions of grandeur. It was libratory to see a niche form of performance, usually sequestered into small clubs for a pre-initiated subculture, writ rich and ribald onto a larger audience. The cumulative affect flew in the face of mass culture’s misplaced cooptation of drag as either the misogynist amusement of seeing a male movie icon in high heels or a pop-diva’s misanthropic sanitization of fringe raunchiness. In this performance, Wainwright located the real power of a lone representative of a disaffected minority guising as premier emissary of popular song. The fantasy of drag is that, via the adulation of a roomful of people, you just might belong. For a New York minute, the performer binds his adherents, through exposing hyperbolically fey tendencies and sappy sentimentality, in the space of a song wherein your body and soul’s most intimate desires need not be ostracized.

Importantly, Wainwright’s vamping was not wrapped up in the typical covers of the American songbook but his own potent songcraft. Unfortunately, the intimacy of his personal lyrics and deeply idiosyncratic music became too ensconced in the performer’s need for acceptance to truly provide a sustained uplift. As the show progressed, Wainwright snapped too much at his audience about, “How hard I am trying to be a pop star,” and referenced too often and too sycophantically his second album, “on sale in the lobby.” At most desperate, he incongruously removed his ill-fitting tee to flay his pale torso like a keyed-up rock-star to his own music, which though magical, lyrical and technically proficient, frankly, doesn’t exactly rock. Wainwright suggested that he, and by extension his audience, was too musically out-of-step, far too idiosyncratic and, ultimately, too gay to truly fit in anywhere. At it’s nadir, Wainwright proffered an ungenerous performer just haughty enough to know his talent but too insecure to surrender to song and share his genius.

Brief life rafts from this unfortunate undertow existed in the performance though. They were located in the moments where, in spite of himself, Wainwright unselfconsciously made his music. As he expertly yet passionately completed a long and complicated passage on the baby grand or hit a particularly soulful note, the audience was allowed fleeting rapture. Most memorable was a nearly a cappella cover Hallelujah. Standing with his arms barely away form his side, supine and hyper-extended, at center stage, Wainwright gently coaxed Leonard Cohen’s lament for redemption into a hypnotic crescendo, “Hall-el-lu-oo-oo-ah-oo-oo-ah-jah.”

In virtuoso moments of singing like this, what suppliants a celebrity’s brattiness is the artist’s potency. Wainwright is an Olympic singer. Much like the grandeur of opera is the sheer athleticism of a well-performed aria, Wainwright is capable of the type of Herculean sound that demands attention. Far from being just a prodigiously talented performer, however, Wainwright is also a masterful songwriter. His body becomes a resonator of his song. For a time, the song reverberates around his neurosis, needs, observations, organs and bones. Then the song is projected; the song becomes art. It flows out, shakes the room and magnetizes the atmosphere to confront the audience.

For some, the song will enter as though you were a vessel, touches your insides and wrings all moisture out through the eyes. For others, it will hover in your space, define your body’s boundaries and present itself as an object at which to wonder. In this moment, the theatrical fourth wall is permeable and this object and your self are mutually colluded, understood and redefined. The drama allows you to connect to something far greater than your lone body’s existence or that ditty’s sole duration. In this instant are parts of your make-up, the piece’s color, a glimpse of the artist’s meaning and the legitimacy of other viewers’ perceptions. The moment is fleeting, however, for at the same time, the sound waves have passed by you. Again your own entity, your body’s very existence has been validated during the exchange. You are both habitually present and infinitely just. Drag is a version of this power of performance as a conduit for a certain politic.

That agenda was not nearly so present at Wainwright’s return engagement to the Vic last night, but it had been replaced by an even more consummate artist capable of investing the evening with countless moments of transcendence cum presence. Now well-coifed and donned in a sharp button-up and multi-colored pants, Wainwright performed a rigid set list of songs almost entirely from his latest album with concentrated, heartfelt precision. He wore each song from his back catalogue with an easy familiarity of a well-loved garment. Not-yet-released tunes were eagerly shared with a parent’s delight. The rehearsed, between-song prattle undercut the subversive punch of his prior performance, but, paradoxically, Wainwright’s ability to act like a self-assured, professional pop star superceded the handicap of needing to be such a celebrity. As a fanatic shouted, “You’re a musical god!” from the audience, Wainwright, chagrinned and amused, replied with the brand of humility that co-arises with true confidence, “I’ll never live that one down.” What Wainwright became on stage was an artist completely in sync with his craft well poised to share it with his audience, not a cloying personality. His music’s performance allowed the songs enough authority to blossom without being uprooted by a performer’s ego or an audience’s rapaciousness.

The key visage of the event came, like the moment described above, about halfway through the show. Leaving the piano, Wainwright again comes to center stage and begins to sing Oh, What a World. Filled with histrionics, complex harmonics and the ludicrously flamboyant inclusion of the gaudy and repetitive theme form Ravel’s Bolero as it’s centerpiece, the song is perhaps Wainwright’s most indulgent. If there was any hesitation that his music was too ensconced in a passé euro-western classical training to be populist however, it was not in evidenced as he bounced, chuckled and gesticulated behind the microphone. Although the lyrics cant feeling unloved in a hectic world, they finally, boisterously boast, “but I think I’m doing fine.” The song, curious and queer to a spectrum of popular music that more readily embraces rhythmic traditions through hip-hop or rock-n-roll, willfully exists whether or not it is understood. I doubt, however, anyone in attendance didn’t get it. For that moment, we had art’s treasured simultaneity of being and belonging. As Wainwright lauds his arms aloft to sing, “Life is...,” we all knew, as he belts out the final triumphant note, we were, “...beau-ti-fuuulll!”


Written by Jeff M. Ward

NOTE: Occasionally the writers for Panel-House would come to me with excellent musings on things musical, I certainly miss Jeff's insights as he finishes his time in the CORE Program.


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