Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III, Royal Opera House, London
John Grant, 100 Club, London
The best of families fall out, but they don't all get a chance to iron out their differences in front of an audience paying hundreds to see the reconciliation
Sunday 24 July 2011
The last time I saw a Wainwright clan family gathering in London, two Christmases ago at the Royal Albert Hall, one man was notable by his absence.
Estranged paterfamilias Loudon Wainwright III was, depending on your taste in metaphors, the black sheep or the éminence grise, the elephant in the room or the ghost at the banquet.
Like any child of divorce who grew up having to split Christmas Day down the middle, Rufus Wainwright understands that he has to do these things twice. The extent to which Loudon was persona non grata in his own family is shown by the title of his daughter Martha's song about him, "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" (their relationship clearly having taken a wrong turn since his sentimental ode to her as a child, "Five Years Old"). Rufus's own "Dinner At Eight" was scarcely less harsh: "Daddy, don't be surprised/If I wanna see the tears in your eyes".
Since the death of Kate McGarrigle, Rufus and Martha's mother, bridges have been rebuilt, and a father-and-son reunion is only a motion away. That moment, it turns out, is a wobbly-headed peck on each cheek from the waistcoated wastrel and a loose-limbed embrace, before they duet on Richard Thompson's "Down Where The Drunkards Roll".
This is the money-shot, the moment to which the entire House of Rufus residency at the Royal Opera House, timed to coincide with a 19-disc box set, has been building, and it would take a hard-hearted man not to feel a lump in his throat.
Loudon's own set is a lip-gurning, tongue-lolling, foot-stamping joy. Introducing himself as "By far the worst pianist you're going to hear tonight", he sings a song which begins "Here's another song in C/ When I play piano, it's my favourite key ... with my favourite protagonist: me."
Many of his songs and monologies focus, fittingly, on matters paternal, even to the extent of covering Peter Blegvad's "Daughter". Sadly we don't get the now-ironic "Rufus Is A Tit Man" (written when its subject was a breast-fed baby, and his sexuality was as-yet undetermined), but we do get the later "A Father And A Son", written about the antagonism between the teenage Rufus and his middle-aged dad.
He's accompanied by a spangly Martha on "You Never Phone", a collaborative effort on which she takes a fonder tone towards him. He's also joined for Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts" by Lucy Wainwright Roche, his daughter with Suzzy, one of venerable harmonic trio The Roches. These folk royalty never breed with civilians.
After the interval, the gold ER medallions part, the red velvet curtains lift, and Rufus emerges for his solo set. I have to admit, he's never really done it for me. He presupposes the audience's affection, and at anything up to £440 a ticket, he probably can. But, while he's abundantly talented, the needle never tips into genius. For all the well-crafted and elegant songs on those 19 discs, I'm still waiting for someone to point me to his "When Doves Cry", his "Running Up That Hill".
His voice, a constant semitone flat, induces torpor. Every syllable is slurred and warbled to death. It's like eating stale brown bread: no sweetness, no juice. What does it sounds like in his head? Does he think he's nailing every note? The father/son bits, though, are beautiful. Rufus squeezes every drop of innuendo from Loudon's cover of "My Sweetheart": "one is gay and youthful, while the other is bent and old ...".
The banter and bickering, one suspects, comes from decades of practice. "We're taking it way too fast," Rufus interrupts a couple of bars into "Come A Long Way". "I'm the guy who recorded it!" protests Loudon. "But I own the publishing ...", Rufus retorts.
"The dressing room smells of warm urine," says John Grant, glancing at a corner of the 100 Club and holding a comedian's pause, before adding "which for some of you may be a negative, but for me it brings back fond memories."
By nominating him in three categories in this year's awards, Mojo is on a mission to break Grant. Formerly of The Czars, a band that can't even remember themselves, Grant took time away from music before reinventing himself as a bear singer-songwriter on his album Queen of Denmark.
Whoah, there. He's a gay man of a certain girth and vintage who doesn't shave often. Does that justify consigning him to a stereotype? Perhaps not, but the "singer-songwriter" part was of his choosing. Favouring piano over guitar, he's not afraid of Barry Manilow balladry, or Gilbert O'Sullivan honky-tonk. And the line "Baby, I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye" is exquisite.
He's good. Three nominations good? I don't know about that, but for performing a little mouth-to-mouth on the genre's lifeless form, John Grant is a singer-songwriter I can bear.
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