Rufus Wainwright's music is hard to categorize. It's not really pop music because too often it lacks the kind of simple catchy hooks that make for great radio fodder. He composed an opera and has set Shakespearian sonnets to music, but you can't really define him as a classical composer. Across all his diverse projects, it is his innate talent for singing and songwriting that defines him as a musician and is apparent across his genre-hopping career.
When you're the son of two folk singers (Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III), singing and songwriting are ingrained in you. Wainwright has made a life in music, something his heritage seems to have destined him for, but he has also done so in an extremely distinctive, individualistic way. His music, like him, seems to exist in the grey areas and in-betweens. If he's a little outside the norm, it's probably because that is where he is most comfortable.
This Sunday night, Oct. 14, Rufus Wainwright will perform music from his latest album, Out of the Game, at the Meyerson Symphony Center. When I spoke to him last week about this tour, he described the ways in which it's different from some of his previous concerts: "We have a big band on stage this time - there are eight of us up there. What's different about this tour is that there's a definite kind of R&B or, should I say, African American angle. Half the band is black. The backup singers have that kind of gospel sound. It's definitely influenced by classic American pop music which, in my mind, has always been driven by African American sounds."
Out of the Game is certainly more pop-driven than Wainwright's previous albums, although lyrically it still meanders into the obscure at times. His partner in producing this album, Mark Ronson, is definitely more familiar with pop albums, having worked with more mainstream artists like Adele, Amy Winehouse, Nas, and Lil Wayne. Ronson's influence on Wainwright's music takes the singers' inventive melodic ideas and ropes them in, polishing them into somewhat danceable, definitely catchy hits.
The result seems to really appeal to Wainwright in concert. "[Several of the songs on this album] are really intelligent songs," he says, " and the crowd knows it." When he's onstage Sunday, expect some of his more ardent fans to sing along with the biggest hits form the album, including the title track. When he hears that kind of audience interaction, Wainwright feels really happy. "It reminds me of why I'm out touring."
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But while Wainwright is currently enjoying this exploration into pop-music territory, expect him to continue to jump in and out of the classical world, too. In February, his opera, "Prima Donna," made its U.S. debut to mixed reviews (The New York Times called it "chic and pointless"). When I asked him if this kind of response made him wary of composing operas in the future, he was quick to say no. In fact, he already has another in the works, although he wouldn't share details about it yet.
"Every opera gets mixed reviews," he pointed out. "That's the history of opera. But you have to remember that for every bad review, there's also a good one.
"Of course, it always affects me terribly personally. But it's been done before. Every composer who ever lived has had bad press. It's traditional. If you're getting only good press, something's wrong."
Tickets for Sunday night's performance range from $29-$100.