How would he do on The Voice? I only ask because Rufus Wainwright opened this richly generous and rewarding gig with what could have been an alternative audition. “Candles”, an elegy for his late mother and presiding spirit here, Kate McGarrigle, was sung a cappella, on an all but dark stage. His pungent bray progressively lengthened each heartfelt vibrato. To hell with whether the judges would have turned around. An auditorium of ardent fans leaned forward.
That such bravura stuff toppled straight into the louche funk of “Rashida”, a fruity sax glinting in bright green spotlights, brilliantly heightened its effect. Wainwright was revealed, starry yet self-aware, in double-breasted tails and red plastic sunglasses, like Oscar Wilde imitating Ian McCulloch at a disco. Out of the Game, which crashed into the UK chart this week at “number, er, something” – Wainwright was sketchy on the details – is the album he wants to produce a hit single. If he knows that’s far-fetched, he’s still going to have fun trying.
He parsed “Welcome to the Ball” as being reminiscent of Benny Hill, the incorrigible British comedian with the antic theme music. Certainly, its parping brass was not as Sgt Peppery as on the new record, more a nutty showtune with a meltingly soft centre. Later, Wainwright would admit that he makes things difficult for himself – and, true enough, at times, his melodic lines ran ahead of his ability to deliver them. Cabaret insouciance usually pulled him through. The weakest moment was when he was most in earnest, on “Song of You”, for his boyfriend and fiancé, Jorn. Musically plodding, it relied on “Sky/fly/high/try” rhymes – surely loose change to a lyricist of largesse? By contrast, “Montauk”, an exquisite, synth-spangled fantasia, beautifully conveyed not only a gay dad’s wish that his daughter will visit but a general hope that our kids will like us.
Earlier, Teddy Thompson had left his guitar duties and Krystle Warren her backing vocals to sing two McGarrigle numbers, “Saratoga Summer Song” and “I Don’t Know”, respectively – the latter stunningly making it a secular spiritual. Thompson and the other backing singer, Charysse Blackman, joined Wainwright in three-part harmonies on his father Loudon’s plaintive “One-Man Guy”. To complete the family affair that Wainwright concerts always seem to be, his sister Martha bounded on in the encore for a searching solo take on McGarrigle’s “Tell My Sister”.
The classiness of Wainwright’s current material also shone through on “Jericho”, loping 1970s country-soul lifted by a middle-eight Elton and Bernie would be proud of, while his classical-piano leanings underpinned the lieder-like quality of Want Two’s “The Art Teacher”. In a better world, the breezy electro of “Bitter Tears”, the eight-piece band’s sign-off, would give him his pop smash. It’s not as if he’s out of that game, just playing a different one entirely.