“I wish it was a greatest hits set but it's a best of,” quips Rufus Wainwright, here to promote his new “best of” compilation, Vibrate.
Despite being dubbed “the greatest songwriter on the planet at the moment” by Elton John, the idiosyncratic singer isn't really a hit-maker; his biggest “smash” in the UK was “Going to a Town”, which peaked at a heady 54.
However, he is an artist as rare as a pianite gem, an uncategorisable musician who relentlessly plays with genres - opera, jazz, pop, showtunes - and experiments with vocals.
Tonight the flamboyant 40 year old is sporting a sparkly black jacket and trousers so tight he's anxious they'll play havoc with his voice. They don't. Wainwright's tenor vocals are in exquisite nick, for this stripped down, solo performance.
The droll American-Canadian flits between his grand piano and acoustic guitar for a generous (nearly two hours), 21-song set, which is sometimes ramshackle but never for one second dull.
There's an awful lot of humour here. For “Me and Liza” he introduces his half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, as Liza Minnelli. She looks more like Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn, but she very gamely takes a Q&A from the audience pretending to be the Cabaret star. Before “Gay Messiah”, Wainwright informs us that the song is “dedicated to gay legends: Liza Minnelli, myself Rufus Wainwright and Sylvester Stallone.”
There's a lot of audacity too, most notably playing “Vibrate” solely with his left hand and singing “Candles”, his tribute to his late mother, Kate McGarrigle, a cappella.
It's in a live setting where Rufus excels, where he makes perfect sense. Sometimes the grand “idea” of Rufus Wainwright doesn't quite match up to the reality. He's got the matinee idol looks, the genes (son of folk royalty Loudon Wainwright and McGarrigle) and the cocksure attitude but sometimes the songs don't quite live up to the legend.
Tonight, however, he demonstrates he has some knockout tunes, including “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, the stirring “Going to a Town” and, best of all, the hugely evocative heartbreaker “The Art Teacher”, on which he laments “No, never have I turned to any other man”.
Occasionally you can't help but hanker for his other compelling sister, Martha, to accompany him on vocals and for occasional collaborator Nels Cline, Wilco's sublime guitarist, to ramp up the noise and energy. Also some orchestration on his sumptuous confessional “I Don't Know What It Is” is sadly missing here.
But Wainwright carries the concert with talent and chutzpah, even deftly handling the introduction of 50 people from the audience on stage for “Hallelujah”. They make a nervous looking choir but Wainwright relaxes them with his charm: “Pretend we're in a museum and I'm a great work of art.”
“London made me feel like a star,” he maintains towards the end. Well, Wainwright might not be much of a hit-maker but on tonight's evidence he is indefatigably a star.