You’d think, with a healthy affinity for Broadway and a probably unhealthy affinity for pop vocalists from the ’50s and ’60s, that I’d be all over the Rufus Wainwright thing. One problem: I’ve heard his records, and they’re too syrupy and overdramatic, bogged down by pretense and orchestration. When he toured last year for Release the Stars with a large ensemble and wore, like, five different poofy outfits onstage, I didn’t feel like I’d missed much.
But today, friends, I stand before you a changed man. Wainwright played a solo show at the Napa Valley Opera House last night, spotlighting his songs in a stripped-down format, and it was absolutely incredible. I can’t say that I’d follow him around on tour, or hold up star-shaped signs, or jump up applauding after every song like some of the more fervent dyed-in-the-wool fans in the crowd did last night, but if there’s a regular old kind of casual fan club, then sign me up, brother.
The fact that Wainwright was playing such a small venue made the evening feel like a special event indeed. Apparently in the know about his obsessive fans, Napa Valley Opera House Artistic Director Evy Warshawski introduced Wainwright as “you-know-who,” and was forced to deny requests from the audience demanding to know which hotel he was staying at afterwards. Quite a build-up.
Getting off to a shaky start, Wainwright came out, sat at the piano and banged away on the piano for “Grey Gardens,” an otherwise nice song affected by an awkward attack and bad dynamics. Something must have been going on with the monitors, because for the first three songs, it felt like he was overcompensating for imaginary sounds in his head. Eventually, either Wainwright or the soundman figured things out, and throughout the hour and fifteen-minute set, his accompaniment only got better, and was especially sensitive on numbers like “Zebulon” and “Going to a Town.”
Wainwright’s still not the most suitable guitarist—abrasive strumming and fret buzz got in the way—but his piano playing became beautiful and exhilarating, especially during the hands-down best song of the night, “Nobody’s Off the Hook.” Contained in reverence from start to finish, with a pensive instrumental passage, a heartbreaking final verse and an upper-register quote of “Over the Rainbow,” it elicited a communal awed silence before bringing the house down.
From the small stage, Wainwright took advantage of the intimate Napa Valley Opera House, talking with the crowd like old friends. “This is such a cute little Opera House!” he exclaimed midway through the show. “I’m imagining a cute little production of Aida. . . with baby elephants playing big elephants. . . little midget singers. . .” The crowd couldn’t stop laughing, and Wainwright, trying to bring the mood back down for the sad lament “I’m Not Ready to Love,” begged, “Get sad!” When that only dragged out the laughter, he got mock-desperate: “Oh, this is a nightmare!”
“Matinee Idol” sparked an ongoing discussion with the audience about River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Jon Voight and Cary Elwes, and during “California,” Wainwright changed the lyrics, pointedly singing that “life is the longest death in SOUTHERN California.” When the crowd hooted, he cattily admitted to the pander, saying, “I said ‘Northern’ down there!”
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “April Fools” were woven nicely into medleys, and though Wainwright didn’t do any Judy Garland songs (like the night before in Monterrey when the crowd sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”) he convinced the crowd nonetheless to tackle the vocally gymnastic bridge to “Sansoucci,” his ode to the German palace which he hilariously referred to as “the Madonna Inn of Germany.” He also got off a side-splitting line about meeting up again with an old high school crush, a story which isn’t worth repeating here, unfortunately, because it would lack the necessary wit and zest-laden delivery of coming from Wainwright himself.
Wainwright’s songs are so good, his melodies so well-crafted, his sense of bombast so refined, and yet throughout the set all of these attributes sometimes took a backseat to his personality. Before the elegant final encore of “Dinner at Eight,” for example, Wainwright thanked opener Spencer Day for flying in at the last minute to help offset the Daylight Savings Time change. “And,” he quipped, “for providing me with an extra hour to look at myself back there.”
Some performers are performers and some performers are superstars. Wainwright isn’t a superstar, not yet, at least, but at least he’s adhering to the first rule of art, that of striking a pose. Wainwright’s chosen pose—a tortured diva who could crumble at any moment—would easily be an excruciating cliche, except that it’s backed up by such a richness of talent, and eventually, it will see itself fulfilled by said talent. So preen away, Rufus, and look at yourself for another hour. History will catch up.