Wainwright does Garland in Carnegie Hall (postlude)

June 16, 2006

Cover of Time Out New York with Rufus Wainwright

I muse here in these posts in a kind of thinking-out-loud process. I’m writing a book on the music of Rufus Wainwright, specifically, about his own music. Rufus as a performer is outside my current focus, but it’s sometimes impossible to separate the two flames.

Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland show was a success. There are two elements that I was particularly sensitive to in this project: drugs and death. The two were entwined in both Judy and Rufus’s lives. Judy did the concert on drugs, Rufus did not. I am not a Judy Garland expert, but it is my understanding that her health and life were spiralling downward. I know that Rufus’s health and life began to spiral downward on his chrystal meth stretch. Rufus recovered. Judy didn’t.

Lurking behind Judy’s performance was perhaps the terror of facing her own death, sparked by her bout with hepatitus, amplified by whatever pills she was on. Add to that a wildly appreciative and loving audience that finally causes her to shout: “I’ll sing all night!” and they roared.

The audience roared for Rufus too. And I hear they roared even more on the second night. The fact that he is sober, is a major comeback success story — that is, from drugs. His concert did not rely on drugs. He appeared completely clear and in control. Not only that, but he is singing better than he ever has. And if I had to choose between a “five times better” amped-up-on-drugs performance that might have happened had he been in Judy’s shoes, er slippers, and a sober Rufus singing his heart out giving 100%, I’ll choose the latter. I want this dude to live a long time and to write as much music as he possibly can.

That being said, if I had one wish, it was that Rufus would develop a variety of vocal sustain techniques. His favorite procedure is to find the long line and deliver it in that winning way. But c’mon Rufus, discover more ways to deliver that line. Do it blue; do it red; do it brown; do it barbed wire; do it…

When Lorna Luft began to sing, the vibrato immediately conjured Judy. The shaping and timing of Judy’s vibrato is one vocal element that Rufus does not have — not that all singers are required to have an intense vibrato to be successful, but it was definitely an element that was different; it adds a unique intensity.

Could anyone else have pulled this concert off? I think k d lang could have done an amazing job I she had the testosterone to even consider doing it. But then again, I could imagine k d going through a Judy Garland phase.


I, along with some others, became a bit nervous when a slew of Rufus’s new somewhat slo-mo songs came out: falling asleep music for cowboys, songs like “Katonah” or “Low Grade Happiness” or “Between my Legs” or “More Wine” or “Paint & Powder Beauty” or even “The Maker Makes.” Yes, there are good things in them and I’ve gotten accustomed to all of them. But I missed the songs with real harmonic interest. Songs like “Poses” or “Hometown Waltz.” Based on the utterly new direction of Rufus’s dance score, BLOOM, I am optimistic about his future work. He says his next album will be simple: no big productions, just Rufus accompanying himself. An admirable risk and contrast to the trajectory his career has taken to date. After the dust has settled on the Garland show, I look forward to hearing this next stripped down project.

Bravo Rufus, you did it. That was a tough show. You aced it.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

pucks_soul June 17, 2006 at 4:55 am

I too, especially on the second night, was well aware that the world came close to losing Rufus, losing his light and phenomonal soul. I felt priviledged to be in his presence, not in a god like way but the way you feel when someone has touched you profoundly and that the only thing eminating from you when in his presence is pure love and respect. This was my first live concert and I could not think of anywhere else I would rather have seen him, what a beatiful venue to showcase his rare talent in. He was in great voice and I too am anxious to see where his path is leading and what he will produce next. WOW! and thank you Roger for your reviews of the show, I was so in awe that most of the details did not seep into my brain, my only regret was not getting to meet you.

jcpete14 June 17, 2006 at 9:09 am

As a huge Rufus fan, I couldn’t wait for this concert. I have seen him perform his own music at least a half dozen times. The Judy Carnegie concert is legendary…what an ingenious pairing.
I attended the second night and within 2 minutes knew Rufus was over his head. You gotta love the guy for doing this show, but ultimately he failed for several reasons. First and foremost, his voice does not have the trained capacity to give a performance of this varied dimension. Don’t get me wrong, I love his voice and believe it is one of the most unique vocal sounds in the last 50 years. But the matereial demanded his one voice to be several instruments and the result was that he sang almost every number in the same way. With the wonderful exception of the song he sang in Judy’s original key, the lack of tonall variety turned an expectant hall into a humidor. One need only witness the audience repsonse when Martha and Ms Luft broke the stale air with some spark and drama. Which gets to my second point. Why didn’t Rufus take the time to hire a choreogarpher. Not since Linda Rondstadt has a performer appeared so awkward physically. Fortunately his quick wit and gay banter lightened the cumbersome mood set by his unrehearsed “dance” and body movements.
I suppose I desperately wanted more. A once in a lifetime expereince. It was fine, but not spectacular. I wish he would have waited for 10 years when maturity may have helped him realize that the little things are important: knowing players names, knowing song list, not repeating a song for the encore (San Fran).
The Audience was waiting to explode, but settled for appreciative applause and the most tepid of standing ovations.

Roger Bourland June 17, 2006 at 10:43 am

Thanks for your remarks jc. I hear you on all counts, I couched it in more gentle terms, something I’ve had to learn as a teacher of composition.

I wonder whether Rufus has a vocal coach? If not, he should have one.

Rufus has always been an awkward mover. Many find it adorable, but at home he isn’t. If he really wants to, he may get better. I’d just as soon he write more music instead.

Alberto June 20, 2006 at 2:55 pm

Dear Roger,

I bumped into your comments on Rufus’s concert as I was looking for reviews of the event, and I just thought I’d drop you an email. Judy Garland was indeed an addict at the time of her legendary Carnegie Hall concert (in fact, she was an addict since adolescence due to drugs legally prescribed by MGM ‘doctors’), but she fought craving prior to the concert fearing drugs might make her lose her voice or her self-control, and withdrawal symptoms kept her awake for an astounding thirty-six hours before she actually started singing.

Sorry if I sound exacting or facetious, but I don’t like seeing Judy’s drug addiction, which I see as a really serious matter during her life, discussed so lightly when the facts are inaccurate.

Good luck with your Wainwright project!

All best,


meetmeinstlouis July 28, 2006 at 2:48 pm

Check out Judy Garland’s new memoir “Heartbreaker” at http://www.judygarlandheartbreaker.com

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