Meditation on Rufus et al

Me and the missus got out to a rare concert the other night, Rufus Wainwright at Portland's State Theatre. For a city of its size, Portland is blessed with some simply outstanding performance venues, and I don't think any beats the State. It has a long storied history, and apparently goes through extended periods of being closed (it was is one and presumed dead for the first few years of my Portland residency). Then it comes back to life and is all art deco and loaded up with charm, good sound, a great bar area behind the orchestra seats. All the performers the other night made mention of what a cool space it was, and I think they meant it. And - with a pair of tix coming in at about $90 including fees, it was a pretty reasonable way to experience what felt in all ways like a high-class affair.

I'm writing two days after the concert, but so much about it has stuck with me. So I'm sitting in Portland's Bard Coffee blogging - it's I guess a way of intellectually vomiting out the experience so that my digestion can start processing yesterday, today and tomorrow again. There is loud music playing here - which is the drawback to most coffee places. But they make the best coffee I've had north of Cafe Grumpy, so I'll abide. If this post is pure horseshit, you know why. 

I am especially drawn to Rufus Wainwright, and I see him as such a curious case. My review of his concert is etic, rather than emic, in that I am not really a deeply-rooted fan. I have one album, haven't listened to it much, and don't really have anything close to command of his oeuvre. The first song I heard of his was "Oh What a World," which seems to be a good little microcosmic display of what he's all about. Namely, quite obviously the best male singer in pop music today, the best melodist, and a person with some serious taste issues. The first couple of minutes of that song hit me like a thunderbolt - a SAVIOR! But the gradual and ultimately over-the-top incursion of Bolero into the fabric is such a thoroughly wrong turn, and carried through to such complete and utter catastrophe, that one can't in fact help but tip one's hat. He poured a bucket of ink on his Guernica. Wiped out what was destined to be my favorite record in ages. And yet I listen to that song, and often, each time reliving all the hope and frustration a four-minute pop song can possibly bring. 

The concert was something like that, I suppose. Rufus's talent level is off the spectrum. I like seeing a pop star, or any artist really, and thinking, no, he's not like me, he's other (and by other I mean much more talented - talent oozing from his pores, leaving puddles everywhere he turns). Knowing nothing, I have the sense that music must always have come really easily to Rufus. He is, of course, the offspring of two very capable songwriters from the folk world, Loudon Wainwright III, and Kate McGarrigle. Songwriting seems an absolute joke to him, to be honest. And his songwriting has everything I love about songwriting, namely, an endless supply of beautiful melodies, and a bold harmonic sensibility - literally EVERY song had at least one thunderbolt of a harmonic progression that prompted a fast exhale from me. His melodic and harmonic sensibilities are entirely intertwined, such that his wonderful melodies are strengthened at every turn by his relentlessly excellent chord progressions. Unlike some songwriters, though, most notably John Lennon, he isn't entirely dependent on chord movement to give his melodies life (go listen to "Julia" to see what I'm talking about with Lennon. Dude could make one note the best melody on God's earth.) In the audience on Tuesday, I was just dumbfounded as one song after another that I didn't previously know rolled off the stage and swept me up in its sheer brilliance of construction. 

And then there is his voice, which is simply an order of magnitude better than anyone's this side of Thom Yorke. To me his voice is a clear relative of Syd Barret's, Robyn Hitchcock's, and even a little bit of Lennon's, insomuch as there is a slight graininess woven in with the irresistible creaminess, colored by a hint of a British sensibility. He has a considerably wider range than all of those singers too, and on Tuesday he flew comfortably to heights in Harold Arlen's (greatest song ever) "The Man That Got Away", all the way down to basso profundo in a cover of his dad's "One Man Guy." With a voice like that, he could get away with being a really terrible songwriter, or at least a lazy one - especially with the show biz connections he was born into. All things combined, he's a performer/writer on the space alien level - he's a Bowie, a McCartney - an aberration in the gene pool, an inexplicable mutation. 

But he isn't quite Bowie. McCartney might be more apt. And here's where my critique comes in. His generally six-piece band the other night was entirely uninspiring - boring even. He had two electric guitarists, a bassist (who was musical director too), a piano/keys player, a drummer, and then himself on occasional guitar and piano. I suppose the biggest offense is that it was just too much. Too much sound, none of it very interesting. The guitarists, I suppose, were the worst offenders - noodly, tired-sounding, dated, I don't what really - I just almost constantly found myself listening past them. Bass was fine. Drums were as entirely unremarkable as drums could possibly be - I'd do better imagining them, honestly. Piano/Keys guy was capable, thought the keys sounds were often overwhelming and annoying. On the few instances where Rufus stripped down the group, the sound was great. And on the one instance when he performed a song solo w/ piano, it was a revelation. The guy is simply a monster, and really anything covering him up is a detriment. Maybe it's like how I really don't like getting whipped cream and fudge on truly first rate ice cream - I want to taste the actual stuff. But more than that, there was just a real more-for-more's-sake aesthetic at play. Some of the tunes certainly lent themselves well to rocking out, but a three- or four-piece band (including Rufus) would have been sufficient. 

I say more McCartney than Bowie because McCartney - as sheer a talent as he is - really (and quite obviously) did by far his best work when he had John Lennon present as a collaborator, editor, and competitor. I think Rufus would benefit from such a presence, someone of equal gifts to filter his choices and direct his unfathomable talents toward good rather than evil. Bowie - whose incredible talent is sometimes overlooked due to his showmanship and his chameleon-like aptitude for staying relevant - surrounded himself, at least in the golden era, with a better band. Bowie's Spiders' era band complimented everything he did and made it better, the whole was always greater, never less than the sum of its parts. 

There were other items of considerable interest on that concert. A short opening set was played by one of Rufus's backing singers, the mesmerizing and delightfully androgynous  Krystle Warren. I say that because - with her hat on, I mistook her for a dude for about three quarters of the evening. Her set was great, but the highlight of her night was a performance of one of Rufus's mum's tunes, "I Don't Know." Rufus, an apparently generous star, yielded the stage to two of his band members to perform songs from a recent tribute film to Kate McGarrigle, and both were really superb. But Krystle's performance of "I Don't Know" was a thing that blew me backwards, reevaluating all my prior singing and songwriting (negatively). Here's a YouTube clip of it from earlier on the tour. I don't think a song, or its performance, can be all that much better. Her vocal aptitude is indicative of one of Rufus's strengths in assembling an ensemble - he certainly has an ear for voices. His backing singers seem to come from the same distant singing planet as he does. By rights no one should sound this good vocally - in the trio performance of "One Man Guy" I was veritably stunned by the vocal harmonies. Just shrink the band (and make them better). 

After Krystle Warren's short set, the son of another famous singing bard, Adam Cohen (Leonard's boy), did a set that was quite perfect. I previously knew about Adam Cohen only because of another Adam Cohen, founder of the Indie band the Mommyheads, who subsequently changed his name to Adam Elk so as to avoid confusion with his more well-connected namesake. Cohen's band was three-piece: himself on guitar, a female cellist/baby guitar playing singer, and a male combo percussionist/keyboard player (2 limbs on perc, 1 on other - I'm starting to LOVE that route). Cohen is clearly possessed of his father's literary gifts - his lyrics were uniformly outstanding. What's more, the ensemble arrangements were transparent, and never short of the perfect compliment to the songs and their singer. Cohen's voice is not dissimilar to his father's, though perhaps less unique and more conventionally poppy. Definitely more rangy. He is by no means Rufus's equal in talent (have I mentioned that basically no one is?) But in taste he is superior, and his ensemble was better by a good bunch. 

A highlight of the evening was Rufus calling Adam C out for one of his encores, and the two singing Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel." It was an interesting capper on an evening featuring sons of famous men, one probably living in the shadow of his iconic dad, the other having surpassed the accomplishment of his, each, I imagine with particular feelings about their own lineage. I know not what it must feel like, but it was nice for it not to be the elephant in the room, with both men offering soulful and strong renditions of songs of their fathers.