Anything in the Auckland town hall is going to be an experience worth remembering. Feeling the generations of performance in that unique space as you walk past the waistcoated staff adds a certain level of pomp and circumstance. What would be more fitting for Canadian-American Rock’n’Roll troubadour Rufus Wainwright? From his first self-titled release hitting shelves back in 1998, this tour was to celebrate his last 20 years at the top of his game.
On opening duties was Rachel Eckroth, Wainwright's keyboardist and backing singer, clearly enjoying her double duties. Relatively unknown and completely unbilled, this was a welcome surprise. Clad in silver in amongst a series of computers and keyboards, she looked more like an astronaut from a 70’s cult hit than a singer-songwriter. Her short opening set was well received. Her pedigree is without question having worked with the likes of KT Tunstall and jazz luminaire Chris Botti. While brief, it really set the tone for the evening with songs laden with emotion and touched by intriguing musical arrangement, Eckroth is well worth a listen in her own right.
After a short break, the town hall quietened as the lights dropped before Wainwright as his five-piece band took to the stage. You could have heard a pin drop by how clearly focused the crowd were on Wainwright, top-hatted and bedazzled in gold. However, it wasn’t until three songs in, when stripping his hat and soon after his blazer, that the true emphasis of his performance could be seen.
Plonking himself down on the Steinway (the Red Ferrari of pianos), the first small piece of interaction occurred, “So here’s MY version of Danny Boy”. From this point, it was nothing but some of the greatest pieces from his back catalogue; Martha, Beauty Mark, Millbrook, Barcelona, California and Grey Gardens. Constantly switching guitars and moving back and forth from the piano, the first half seemed almost over in flash.
The piece to me though that spoke the loudest wasn’t one of his own songs but a cover of Joni Mitchell. Tying in with his consistent chat about other notable Canadian singers, touching on both his mother, Kate McGarrigle, and Leonard Cohen, he launched into a heartfelt rendition of Both Sides Now. On hearing this, my girlfriend was promptly pulled back to the poignant moment in Love Actually as I’m sure half the audience was, RIP Alan Rickman. Closing out the first half was a new ballad taking shots at the current political situation in the USA, The Sword Of Damocles. Touching on this notable myth, not uncommon in the Wainwright’s work, summed up the first half. Before leaving the stage Wainwright urged everyone who was looking for a unique experience to go talk to Mona at the merch desk…
The second half started with a costume change and Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk. Gone was the golden mirror ball, and in its place, was a beaten up top hat and a feathered and bedazzled cape. This is where the elements of Opera really started coming to the forefront. Gradually, the music became more and more self-indulgent with lesser-known songs and b-sides from the albums of the middle of his career, Want 1, Want 2 etc. During the second half, the crowd seemed a little less focused. However, this true performer kept his crowd all the way through. After 35 mins of the second half, Wainwright and his band left the stage to thunderous applause.
After mere moments, they were back and as was outfit number 3, a racing red bomber jacket. It seemed that the crowd were going to get the two songs they’d missed Hallelujah and Across The Universe that, until this point, had been noticeably absent. It was with great surprise that with the opening lines of Across The Universe, a group to play choir had been plucked from the audience. This to me was a real lowlight of the evening and left a sour taste on what had been an exceptional night's entertainment. At $150 a ticket, to stand on stage during a show finale to me seemed more than a little uncouth and took away from the hard work of the members in his band… That being said it was still a fantastic show overall.
Somewhere between balladeer and Broadway, the baroque-pop star Rufus Wainwright really showed why he has managed to keep putting out fantastic music for the last twenty years and hopefully, he will do so for another twenty.
* Thanks to fans who pointed out that the Joni Mitchell song covered by Rufus Wainwright was indeed Both Sides Now and not Send In The Clowns - Editor.