Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
One of the most truly affecting and life-affirming voices on record and, more importantly, in live performance of the last twenty years is surely Rufus Wainwright. A voice of subtlety and power, sometimes at the same time, who over the course of nine studio albums and countless live performances has investigated the power of the voice when delivering lyrics of truth and depth, reinventing the torch song as modern day pop, writing an opera, and scoring Shakespeare. So, truly there may not be a more suitable or qualified performer to deliver the message of the “voice” than Wainwright’s.
The stage is set sparsely at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff; piano, guitar, and, to tune, string, loosen the most important instrument on stage, a simple glass of water. Wainwright takes to the stage and to the piano and guitar for an opening solo set of his own songs, mostly from the warm pop of his most danceable album, the Mark Ronson produced Out Of The Game. Solo on piano and on guitar these pop treasures sound beautiful and triumphant, as “Vibrate”, “Jericho” and “Out Of The Game” revealing themselves far more a part of Wainwright’s investigation of the voice as an instrument of delivering beautifully composed lyrics than perhaps they previously had on the commercial album versions. He informs us early on in proceedings that he had played in Brighton the previous night and Brighton’s Saturday night had left him feeling tender. Well, if this is truly the sound of Wainwright’s voice in a state of hangover, it should be added to the wonders of the world.
Wainwright’s technique on the mic is a lesson to everyone who has ever gone near one, to sing or to speak, every nuance of his voice is laid out perfectly, his impressive register served to stunning affect. So, when this lone, charming, occasionally self-effacing, occasionally hilarious, sensitive but fearless young man sings with such tragedy, euphoric joy of love, and a masterful sweeping register it is even more affecting. Whereas John Cale in the opening concert pretty much just barked “What!?” at the crowd should they imbue any love towards him, when a fan shouts “We love you Rufus!” Wainwright replies ultra coolly without looking up from his piano, “I love you too…just you”.
Wainwright understands what is being asked of him tonight. This is a celebration of the voice and not necessarily the songwriter, though the impressive selection of original material tonight reminds of the many sublime albums this man has created. His voice really soars to another level when tackling some spot on standards. But, in turn, these selections remind us of how much this artist has achieved. His triumphant Rufus Sings Judy Garland (shows soon to be repeated at Carnegie Hall), return here in the form of a number of classics that seems to have Wainwright inhabited by Garland’s ghost; “Zing! Went My Heart Strings”, “You Go To My Head” (this writer’s highlight of the covers), “Chicago” and numerous other classics are delivered with such joyous aplomb that the concert becomes one that you wish would never end. Accompanied beautifully by his pianist, the only other musician present tonight, Wainwright embodies Garland in such a spiritually uplifting way that he channels a great voice of yesteryear for the festival. He sums this section up as a practice for future shows, but this downplays what a sublime choice this is for a festival of voice.
We even get a taste of part of his recent album of Shakespearean sonnets, which is a damn sight better than that brief description suggests, and is a very successful experiment worth anyone’s time. Even better is the last movement of his recent opera, Prima Donna, in which his extraordinary tenor simply seems otherworldly. Who else in popular music could takes us through pop, folk, opera, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Shakespeare, and towards the end during one of three encores, Leonard Cohen in a truly bone chilling “Hallelujah”, which against all the odds, including Jeff Buckley and John Cale, Wainwright has made his own. With such an impressive roster of writers and influences it is perhaps even more impressive that his own “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” is the absolute standout performance.
This is what the Festival of Voice should be all about. The genius of the possibilities of voice. Wainwright got it completely right, on a night where old fans fell even deeper in love with him and new fans, even with the coldest hearts, were created for this singular talent and immensely engaging man and performer. Bravo Rufus!