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.


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