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Rufus Wainwright Delivers Stunning Set in the Suburbs: Concert Review

Rufus Wainwright Performing Valley Performing Arts Center - P 2013
Kyleen James

The Bottom Line

The singer-songwriter references the long shadow of his musical family and his own modern family in a thoroughly entertaining solo set.

Venue

Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge
Northridge, Calif.
(Saturday, June 8)

The singer-songwriter alternated between piano and acoustic guitar during a 90-minute performance in Northridge.

One song into his set Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State, Northridge, Rufus Wainwright admitted that he didn't know the San Fernando Valley suburb existed except for the 1994 earthquake.

Some of the subscribers at the theater, which is sort of the valley's answer to the Disney Concert Hall, may have felt the same way about the singer-songwriter before Saturday night's show. But following his stunning 90-minute set, they'll likely never forget him.

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Performing solo, alternating between piano and acoustic guitar, Wainwright was at times incredibly moving, at others funny, but always entertaining. The bare-bones setting showcased his superb talents as a vocalist, musician and songwriter since there was no wall of sound to hide behind, or fellow musicians to prop him up. Rather, he performed strikingly solo, occasionally acknowledging the long shadow of his famous family of musicians, the ghost of his old friend and his own modern family.

In general, the songs Wainwright performed on guitar were more jaunty, such as "Out of the Game," the should-have-been-a-hit title track from his 2012 release. Wainwright joked it was supposed to be "a massive hit, but two things went wrong. The kids couldn't relate to the title … and then there was this massive Korean guy." Hit or not, the song highlighted Wainwright's expert vocal phrasing and sounded like a lost classic.

The numbers performed on piano were more melancholic, sometimes employing seemingly free-form song structures that made them sound like poems put to music, rather than songs with traditional verses and choruses. Particularly moving was "Martha," a musical voicemail to his sister and fellow artist, highlighted by Wainwright's repeated heart-wrenching pleas to his sister to "call me back." That was followed by a monologue in which Wainwright recounted his early struggles for stardom in New York and his hate and jealousy of another son of a folk legend, Jeff Buckley.

Yet when Wainwright found success and returned to New York, Buckley turned up at one of his shows, and Wainwright discovered he was "a great artist and lovely guy, and of course I fell in love with him." A few weeks later, Buckley drowned in the Mississippi. Again at the piano, Wainwright performed "Memphis Skyline," his poignant tribute to Buckley, followed by "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen song he and Buckley recorded and helped transform into a modern standard. Even after Wainwright stumbled on the lyrics and let out an expletive, it was transcendental.

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Performing in a custom Cameron Helm hand-painted suit, Wainwright lightened the mood with a tale of guitar shopping in Korea before performing "California." Later he admitted he's "afraid of guitars" because his father, Loudon Wainwright III "plays guitar." He also noted his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle's prowess on a number of instruments. McGarrigle was referenced in the chilling "Zebulon," in which Wainwright employed a hypnotic repetitive chord pattern and turned his gaze heavenward as his vocals soared. He also honored his mother by covering "The Walking Song," one of his songs that will be included on the forthcoming tribute album Sing Me the Songs.

Yet perhaps the greatest insight into Wainwright as an artist and performer came in "Gay Messiah," which he performed after mentioning he recently witnessed some disturbing anti-gay protests in Paris, and "Montauk," which opened the first encore, following a standing ovation. Wainwright explained the song, which references two dads, was for his daughter Viva, and it's likely the most tuneful tale of a modern family you'll ever hear.

Set List:

The Art Teacher
This Love Affair
Grey Garden
Out of the Game
Jericho
Matinee Idol
Martha
Memphis Skyline
Hallelujah
California
11:11
Gay Messiah
Going to a Town
Zebulon
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk

Encore

Montauk
The Walking Song
Foolish Love
Poses

Twitter: @THRmusic

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Wainwright performed barefoot.

Kyleen James