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Rufus Wainwright Auctions Himself for Brilliant Backyard Show

The singer raises thousands for his mom's cancer research fund and CAP UCLA in a concert at Bradford Cohen's Holmby Hills home.

Rufus Wainwright - H 2013
Wainwright playing the guitar he calls "Blue Boy." (Photo: Gordon Cohen)

Rufus Wainwright's exhilarating, soulful show hosted by Venable's Bradford S. Cohen and Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA board member Valerie Cohen at their Holmby Hills home Sept. 20 was surprisingly intimate. The show originated when Wainwright and his extended family of genius singer-songwriters performed at CAP UCLA's Christmas concerts Dec. 21-22, and he impulsively auctioned himself off for a private concert. CAP UCLA director Kristy Edmunds raced out of the room to get the wheels in motion, and the auction's top bidders, the Cohens, agreed to hold it in their home and backyard.

"My sister [Martha Wainwright] was supposed to be here [too]," Wainwright told the audience of 90 people, "but she got a role in an HBO series." (Evidently, he was referring to Lisa Cholodenko's Olive Kitteridge, about which Martha recently tweeted, "Getting into character for a new hbo series that i'm shooting up in cape ann mass. can't say too much about the project but i'm a hard drinking lounge singer and my co actors include frances mcdormand and richard jenkins. i have a small but what i like to think of as a substantial part! it's all very exciting.")

"Rufus could sell out the Hollywood Bowl," Cohen told The Hollywood Reporter, but the purpose of this show was to raise $25,000 for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation (the cancer research program named for Wainwright's late mother, a great folk singer), plus $30,000 for CAP UCLA -- and to grow the CAP UCLA community by about 70 new members. The crowd included triple Emmy-winning The Simpsons co-executive producer Bill Odenkirk and wife Sarah, Hammer Museum director Annie Philbin, Hasbro Studios president Stephen Davis, restaurateur Pam Morton and arts patrons Rosette Delug, Laura Donnelley and Deborah Irmas (CAP UCLA board president). Since UCLA Live was rebranded as CAP UCLA under Edmunds two years ago, membership has grown 25 percent. One-third of CAP UCLA's budget comes from members.

Wainwright nailed his operatic yet down-to-earth tunes "The Art Teacher"  and "This Love Affair," then bantered fondly with Edmunds, who was in a rather huggy mood, because the event was a triumph and she was anticipating her wedding at 8 a.m. the morning after the show. "Kristy's getting married tomorrow," said Wainwright. "I've been married about a year -- it's good for about a year."

But the show dove deeper when Wainwright sang his first masterpiece, "Beauty Mark," about his mother Kate and their family resemblance and differences. Then came "Want," with its also pointedly autobiographical lyrics: "I don't really want to be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen/ I just want to be my Dad/ with a slight sprinkling of my mother/ And work at the family store/ And take orders from the counter."

Wainwright's soaring tenor vibrato is like his mother's, only far more resonant, and his lyrics combine her ethereal intelligence and idiosyncratic line lengths with his father Loudon Wainwright's acerbic autobiographical wit. He sang his mother's "The Work Song," about black music and Stephen Foster classics, which both he and his mother were raised to sing in family gatherings, and his mother's greatest masterpiece, "Talk to Me of Mendocino." Maria Muldaur sang the former on her first solo album, and Linda Ronstadt sang the latter on 1982's Get Closer.

Wainwright closed his eyes and upped the emotional ante on "Talk to Me of Mendocino," whose lyrics were apt thanks to the wall of trees that rose 90 feet behind the stage:

And the trees grow high in New York state
And they shine like gold in the autumn
Never had the blues from whence I came
But in New York state, I got 'em

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow
Won't you say come with me.

Then he introduced his crowd-pleasing rendition of "Over the Rainbow," saying, "We would always do this song at parties and it would always bring the house down, partly because of my young age. This song is really about Hollywood." Before playing "Going to a Town," about his disillusionment with America, Wainwright said, "I have to dedicate this song to Mr. Ted Cruz."

He seemed happier when he dedicated his darkly angelic version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to his daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright, whose mother is Leonard Cohen's daughter Lorca. (Viva's "deputy dad" is Rufus Wainwright's guy Jorn Weisbrodt.)

After a rather upbeat performance of "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," about his former self-indulgent bad habits, Wainwright concluded with an a flawless cappella version of his song "Candles," about the time he tried to light a candle in honor of his mother after her 2010 death. "I went to light a candle, and the church had run out of candles," said Wainwright. "Then I went to another church, and they had run out. I took it as a sign of my mom saying, 'Oh, it's OK, don't worry, I'm fine, you don't have to send me off -- I'm gone.' A couple weeks later I was at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and they hadn't run out of candles. So I lit a candle there, and started laughing, because you know, my mom wanted her last candle at the cathedral. Not at the place down on Third Avenue! Now, if I can just hit the key..."

Wainwright hit the key, all right. Under a cloudy sky near the sea, he showed a totally different side of himself than he does in larger venues -- sweeter, funnier, warmer. It felt like a family affair.

But fun is fun and business is business. When THR asked Edmunds where she was going on her honeymoon the next day, Edmunds replied, "What honeymoon? I'm going right back to work."