Rufus Wainwright, Even in Red Ruby Slippers, Isn’t Looking to Go Back

Rufus Wainwright is criminally underrated. Who do we charge with that?
Rufus Wainwright is criminally underrated. Who do we charge with that?
Tony Hauser
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Time seemed more slippery than usual this past Friday night at the Majestic Theatre. Standing before a near-capacity audience, Rufus Wainwright, clad in a Western shirt, black jeans and glittering ruby slippers, sang in his ageless voice — rich, resonant and riveting — of youthful hedonism and domestic pleasures, collapsing the years between them.

The middle years are a strange place to be. The fiery ascendance of youth has burned away, the grim decline is yet over the horizon, and life, more or less, has settled into what it will likely be. Navigating this terrain can be fraught for artists, some of whom may be tempted to reach back for past glories or contort themselves trying to find a new way forward.

Wainwright does none of these, at least not overtly.

Friday was a series of indelible moments, glimpses of an artist fully present in this unremarkable plateau, still finding fresh ways to surprise, but also reminding all those gathered of his undimmed brilliance. His fingers finding the chords on piano and guitar, effortless melody laid against his otherworldly voice, itself an ageless wonder. The audience was in lockstep throughout, reverent when required and boisterous when befitting the circumstances.

During “Peaceful Afternoon,” a track from his forthcoming, Mitchell Froom-produced studio album (tentatively titled Unfollow the Rules), due out next spring, the 46-year-old Wainwright sang movingly of the marital bond shared with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt (who was in attendance Friday): “And I pray that your face is the last I see/On a peaceful afternoon.”

Two songs later, the contrast between then and now — between Wainwright’s trouble-tossed youth and his maturation into a happily married family man — blossomed vividly in “Poses,” the title track of Wainwright’s 2000 sophomore album: “Life is a game and true love is a trophy.”

What sounded cynical, albeit tinged with no small amount of yearning, almost 20 years ago has taken root in reality: Wainwright’s life has continued to unfold and expand and surprise, just as everyone’s does, but in his art, he is able to work through events large and small in a captivating fashion few other singer-songwriters can approach.

Time and again during his 110-minute set Friday — the set marked Wainwright’s first turn on a DFW-area stage in more than six years, following a 2013 appearance at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall — the Canadian-born musician, largely working alone on acoustic guitar or a gleaming black Steinway piano, save for mid-set and encore cameos from the evening’s opener, E.B. the Younger, roamed through his eclectic catalog.

Highlights abounded: Wainwright, his face wreathed with a gray beard, detoured into French pop (his “La Complainte de la Butte” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack); showcased rollicking tracks from the forthcoming studio album, including new single “Trouble in Paradise”; paid homage to one of his guiding lights, the late Leonard Cohen (a spirited “So Long, Marianne” and the show-closing “Hallelujah”); and folded in a bittersweet homage to both parents — “Dinner at Eight,” dedicated to his father, acclaimed troubadour Loudon Wainwright III, and “Candles,” dedicated to his late mother, Kate McGarrigle.

The moments when the hair stood up on the back of the neck were equally plentiful: Wainwright’s sustained note at the climax of “Vibrate” was extraordinary, as were his exquisite, tender readings of “Poses,” “Dinner at Eight” and, particularly, “Candles,” rendered a cappella as his face was bathed in soft, shifting lights.

Wainwright’s multi-octave voice has only grown more potent over the course of his quarter-century career, and its beauty never fails to overwhelm. Those instances of sensory overload — when time seemed to stand still — were buttressed with Wainwright’s gregarious between-song banter, whether it was inadvertently stoking intra-state resentments between Houston and Dallas (“What have I stepped into in my ruby slippers?” he wondered aloud) or sharing touching anecdotes about meeting his fans before the show.

He saved his weightiest observations for the encore, before striking up “Going to a Town,” a track from his 2007 LP Release the Stars.

“This is a big year and there’s a lot going on,” he began. “I’m proud I get to play in America; I feel really lucky to do that — I’m fortunate to get to express myself.”

Wainwright continued on about what he observed as a necessary societal reset — “Hearken back to how to be a good person” — before concluding, to increasingly spirited applause and shouting: “My thing in Texas is — you don’t like bullshit; don’t believe the bullshit. It’s pretty obvious, so I’m going to leave it at that.”

Much like the sentiment contained in the song that followed — its chorus a beyond-weary exhalation of “I’m so tired of you, America” — Wainwright was simultaneously reaching back a dozen years but also speaking to the current moment.

The personal is often political, after all, and so the encore neatly reconciled all that came before it and was a tidy arc for one of pop music’s most criminally underrated talents. Again and again Friday night, Rufus Wainwright found ways to stitch together those indelible moments — his singular voice as the connective thread — reminding everyone of time’s fleeting essence, but how wonderful it can be to stop and savor its sweetness once in a while.

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