Rufus Wainwright, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There are not many performers like Rufus Wainwright, who manages to tell a story about his relationship with his sister Martha by comparing himself to Mozart - "who also had a sister...". Although he did admit that when he told that story in Vienna many people walked out. At Shepherd's Bush, the brimming crowd are not only charmed by Rufus's amusing and impulsive repartee, but enchanted by that rich caramel voice.

He opens the show with an appeal to peace, "Agnus Dei", which floats on a Middle Eastern minor scale and then capitulates to a major plenitude with piano, strings and guitar. It's a response to the US religious right wing, and transports the crowd into the realm of the sublime.

Tonight most of the material comes from his witty and darkly romantic fourth album, Want Two. His sister, as well as his father, are also touring with their new albums at the moment; a reminder of the family drama that adds an operatic atmosphere to the show. A dark ode to his father in the middle of the set from 2003's Want One is a deeply haunting emotional challenge.

Wainwright's velvet voice, sensually slurred, envelops the audience with its heady, intoxicated tones. He is more of a swooner than a crooner, and the biographical nature of his songs only serves to conjure a universal sense of romance, nostalgia, and delicate heartbreak. "Peach Trees" recalls old love; it floats and spins like feathers. New songs such as "The Art Teacher" and especially the heart-melting "Love Affair" reach a simply exquisite alchemy of voice and piano.

Spellbound, the audience seems to overflow in adoration at each pause. It is hard to know whether his reception is born of familiarity with his songs or out of the warm, relaxed atmosphere he creates with his wacky commentary. Very casual, very funny and, yes, very gay. Merging chanson, ballad, swing and pop, it seems no style is out of his range. "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" and "California" are crowd favourites, but the more rocking songs seem to rattle out the exceptional quality of his work; he is truly brilliant just with a piano.

In his persona of Seventies "Gay Messiah" he has nothing of David Bowie's apocalyptic laments. Wainwright is firmly from this planet when he "comes out" for this encore act; with stripey socks and fairy wings, he looks more like the Nineties indie girl than a glam queen. His band completes the picture as they undress to a slow-moving salsa revealing G-strings, police hats and torsos, later demurely covering themselves with flannelette dressing gowns. It's all so fun and familiar - like a pyjama party.

Whether he's comparing himself to Mozart or revealing a sparkling G-string, there's no doubt that everyone is having a fab time. How does he get away with all this? A stunning show.

Touring 12 to 18 May (www.rufuswainwright.com)

Comments