Following the Murdoch double act at Parliament, another father-son duo appeared at a venerable London landmark last week. This time it was the Royal Opera House, which Rufus Wainwright took over for a five-night residency. On Thursday he was joined by his father Loudon Wainwright III, the US folk singer-patriarch of the Wainwright musical family.
It promised to be an intriguing evening. The two men have a complicated relationship, disrupted by Loudon walking out on the family when Rufus was three. Although the death last year of Rufus’s mother, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, brought about a rapprochement, there was an undercurrent of tension at their joint show, which began with Loudon’s solo set.
His opening choice of song couldn’t have been more pointed. It was “Rufus Is a Tit Man”, Loudon’s satirically Oedipal account of his infant son’s breast-feeding habits: “So put Rufus on the left one/And put me right on the right/And like Romulus and Remus/We’ll suck all night.”
Once touted as the new Bob Dylan, Loudon’s wit is more in the tradition of Tom Lehrer or Randy Newman. Family and death were the main themes of his set. There were look-at-me jokes such as “Another Song in C” (“Here’s another song in C/With my favourite protagonist – me”). But there were also stiletto-like moments of emotional truth, such as his final song “A Father and a Son”, written about the teenage Rufus. “I don’t want to die and you want to live,” Loudon sang. In his world, boys don’t keep their fathers’ death at bay: they usher it along.
After the interval, Rufus took over. Sitting at a piano with his band, he painted songs such as “Beautiful Child” in the sensual hues of a 17th-century vanitas painting, voice plump with longing, songs ornate with tempo changes and piano chords. It was far more sophisticated musically than his father, though in Rufus too there was a fine balancing act between cynicism and sentiment. An aphorism in “Poses” was Loudon crossed with Oscar Wilde: “Life is a game and true love is the trophy.”
Unfortunately, the concert flagged when the two Wainwrights joined forces. Accompanied by Rufus’s sisters Martha and Lucy, they appeared hesitant together, playing folk covers and versions of each other’s songs. It didn’t help that Rufus had to read lyrics from an autocue, an act of under-rehearsal wholly out of keeping with the sumptuous Royal Opera House setting. Some stern fatherly authority would have come in handy at that particular moment.