Martha Wainwright, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

 

Among the prodigal polymath musicians of the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan, Martha seems destined to come second to her brother Rufus.Among the prodigal polymath musicians of the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan, Martha seems destined to come second to her brother Rufus.

It’s true she’s never written an opera, or had his success or acclaim. As she says dryly tonight after “Radio Star”, a song from her fine new, fourth album Come Home to Mama, its title is “obviously not at all autobiographical.”

But what she does better than Rufus, or any woman in current pop, is sing. And she has such an untethered spirit that she writes words for that voice which are shamelessly lusty, confused and sometimes vengeful; confessions and accusations that are directed equally at herself and errant lovers.

Wainwright is wearing a long black skirt and high-heeled boots she kicks with excitement at the sound her band make behind her, though her thrill is hard to share. The sophisticated AOR they play is only really made special by the songs she gives them.

It’s a huge relief when she switches to voice and piano for two songs from Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, a Paris: Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record (2009). She sets the narrative scene of the French chanson which, with their heightened passion, could almost be hers. Then she throws her whole body into the performance. Emoting with her arms, stamping across the stage, in the pin-drop silence, you could even lose the piano and throw away her mic, such is her voice’s giant, supple force.

The period since the last album of her own songs, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, has been marked by the death of her mother, Kate McGarrigle, and the painful birth of a son, Arcangelo, with her husband and bassist Brad Albetta.

On the last song McGarrigle wrote, “Proserpina”, also on Wainwright’s new album, she gives the ritual moan of a mourning woman, between bewitchingly rhythmic verses. It’s beautiful, but not as much as the encore, “Stormy Weather.”

Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, take your pick - they haven’t sung it better than Wainwright does here. With husband Albetta on piano, she finds new rooms of raw, precisely expressed emotion in the song, discovering the gospel desire for a better day contained within its blues lament. If she strips to the heart of the matter which is her voice more often, Rufus and the rest would be left in the dust.

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