Behind our host for the evening his name hangs in large, stylised typography on the sleek backdrop, looking like the logo of a branded clothing line and giving us the impression that we’re here for a runway show rather than a set of delicate, distinguished pop songwriting from the apex of pop’s greatest contemporary dynasty – son of Loudon Wainwright III and the recently departed Kate McGarrigle, brother of Martha and father to a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca.
Also newly with-husband, Wainwright’s recent life experiences balance but don’t overshadow the death of his mother. In one of the most generous segments of a show steered by a man who might take being described as a perennial show-off as a compliment, he delegated the tributes to McGarrigle to two of his excellent backing band, with Teddy (son of Richard and Linda) Thompson adding a rootsy twang to Saratoga Summer Song and Krystle Warren lifting I Don’t Know with a rich, soulful voice.
Elsewhere the tone was light, even when Wainwright was playing moody at the piano. Wearing an outfit given to him by Jean-Paul Gaultier (leather trousers and a “three-part strip” of black cape, leather suit jacket and rib-clutching vest), the singer hints at many styles during the body of his set, including the foot-tapping Beatles beat of April Fools, the low-slung country amble of Respectable Dive and Perfect Man’s loose, laid-back funk.
Yet really he’s a genre unto himself, a cutting blend of curt, heartbroken black humour and tender romanticism on familiar songs including The Art Teacher and Going to a Town.
Highlights included the appearance of Leonard Cohen’s son Adam for jazz-inspired vocal backing on his father’s Everybody Knows and Wainwright’s appropriation of his own father’s One Man Guy, its tongue-in-cheek narcissism biting home.
Things fired off into a new stratosphere of high camp and wildly ambitious oddness, however, with the encore, as Wainwright paraded through the aisles as the Greek god of “music and hotness” Rufus Apollo while his band dressed and played like Funkadelic on the dirty grove of Bitter Tears, dragging a crowd of followers onstage and then closing with a version of Gay Messiah mimed by a giant filled baguette held by a man in a monkey suit.
“Obviously I'm doing this for the highest theatrical honours,” joked Wainwright, but this is a side of his art it would be a thrill to see more of.