Lost in space: New album releases - Roddy Frame reviewed - Jim White on Loudon Wainwright at the Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
It is not often that you see, in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall before a concert, middle-aged men dressed in 20-year-old Steeleye Span T-shirts and those khaki leisure trousers that you buy from the back of a colour supplement, which fold, without undue creasing, into your money belt. For the visit of Loudon Wainwright III the Hall, which normally plays host to people higher up the sartorial chain, was dotted with figures whose woolly, hairy plumage suggested their natural habitat was the folk club.

The smoke-filled den is Wainwright's usual turf, too. Here in the cultural vortex of London's South Bank, as he wandered on clutching his guitar, he looked a little disorientated.

'Hello there everybody,' he said in his Deputy Dawg voice, looking round at the empty choir terraces bearing, vertiginously, up behind him. 'The chorus will be along in a minute.'

With his armoury of nervous tics, Wainwright has the bearing of someone who doesn't quite know what is going to happen next; certainly he couldn't have known what was going to happen when he last visited his barber. After he had completed his first song (one written at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration which included the lyric: 'Not quite a coronation / Feels more like a senior prom') he studied what appeared to be a betting slip. As he looked at it, he revealed that it wasn't a set list. 'Actually, it says: 'You're a good person, just keep going.' My therapist told me to write it.'

The pocket from which he pulled this message of support was in a pair of grey flannels. These he was wearing with a crumpled, collarless grandad shirt, desert boots and red socks. But as no one writes with quite the emotional honesty he does, by the end of 90 minutes we knew far more about him than the cut of his trousers. He might as well have turned up on stage naked.

In the course of a Loudon Wainwright concert every personal relationship is explored in the most pertinent detail: not just with ex-wives, lovers and sisters, but with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and his general practioner too ('I went to the doctor, the doctor said 'Son, / You look older than me and I'm 71' ').

Two songs stood out as particularly stripped and raw. One concerns pleading with a reluctant groupie ('Come up to my motel room, save my life'); the other is about hitting his young son, an act which in Sweden would land him in court and here just lands him on stage.

It would be wrong to think that just because his lyrics suggest his life is a mess, Wainwright is too confused to know how to perform. His guitar playing, although sometimes offering no more than the rhythm to his vocalising, is precise and economical. Normally he arrives in Britain simply with his guitar, he slings it in the back of a hire car and drives around the country: the ultimate troubadour. For this tour he is being more ambitious, taking with him Chaim Hobsbaum, an accomplished banjo-player and raconteur whose voice complemented his own in a series of splendid harmonies.

But the thing that sets him several miles above the norm is his words, not just in the songs but in the gags ('I'm hoping that Rolf Harris will record this song') and the spontaneous put-downs he delivers to an audience. Loudon Wainwright's are dedicated fans, who know by-ways of his career he has long forgotten and who, like winning contestants on Name That Tune, cheer in recognition after he has strummed no more than two bars of an intro. They also shout out song titles in the expectaction that he might actually play them.

'How'd you remember that?' he said after someone had yelled a request. 'It's a good song. A great one. But there's no way I'm gonna do it.'

And it was here, in his dialogue with the faithful, that Wainwright's problem with this venue became apparent. In the Leeds Irish Centre or the Cambridge Folk Festival the audience can relax. At the Festival Hall, though the acoustics were a crisp cut above the Town & Country's, they sat intimidated by the atmosphere, offering far less than their usual contribution.

Near the end a man with a huge bass voice did rumble a suggestion from the balcony. 'I'm sorry,' said Loudon. 'You'll have to enunciate better.' The man shouted again, this time even louder, even deeper and even less comprehensibly. 'Beats me what you're saying,' rejoined the singer. 'Are you a Yugoslavian refugee?' The man did not reply.

After the concert, Wainwright wasn't convinced that it was the venue that silenced the man. He was nervous it was him. 'Probably not a good thing to make fun of someone being a refugee,' he said. 'Or a Yugoslav.'

Worrying about a heckler's feelings: now that's what you call a rapport.

For tour details, see Gigs, p 16

(Photograph omitted)