words by Katie Wighton // photos by Ian Laidlaw (@ian.laidlaw)
“..nobody could sing it like he does. His phrasing. The heartache in his high register. I look around me and there is not a dry eye in the house.”
Rufy. Can I call you Rufy? You've been in my life for a long time now. And you're consistently incredible. I love you. Oh so much. I will be honest. I haven't always loved everything you've done. But surely that makes my love even more real?
I've seen Rufus Wainwright a few times now and the man never disappoints. This time The Zoo provides a pretty magical backdrop for a pretty magical man. He had two supports tonight – one Rachel Eckroth who also plays in his band and the inimitable Mojo Juju.
Rachel Eckroth has an impressive voice and brilliant command over the keyboard. She sings with a vocoder which is cool. It smacks of Imogen Heap though and I can't help thinking it's slightly derivative. But she's an incredible musician.
This is my kind of gig setting. I'm sitting with my mate, wine in hand on a picnic blanket which I can actually lie down on whenever I like. I fear I'm getting old when I say that gigs where I can sit/LIE down are fast becoming my favourite. We share a rose and a laugh or two before Mojo Juju takes the stage.
They open their set with Native Tongue, a powerful song with an important message. If you haven't read Mojo's open letter to Andrew Bolt you really, REALLY should. Mojo and T-Bone (the little brother Mojo likes to call 'Steve') make a formidable team, laying down boss beats and making a huge sound for just two people and a track.
Their second song Something Wrong usually has a guest rap spot by Mirrah but tonight Mojo gives it a crack and bloody nails it. For someone who is self-admittedly “Not a rapper” she's flippin great at it. Next album perhaps? Mojo picks up the guitar and starts to introduce the next song. “I don't want to get too heavy on you because I know you're having a good time but this is about how institutionalised racism can tear families apart. You know. Nothing too heavy.” It's a song called Bound To and Mojo wrote it with 'Steve' about their grandparents. I love how personal it gets and how genuine these emotions and stories are for Mojo.
She doesn't stop there either. Imploring us to write to our local member and reminding us that we are the last colony that doesn't have a treaty with its first-nations people which is, in my opinion, appalling. Mojo's music will do that to you, though. It'll make you want to stand up and fight or at the very least, write a sternly worded letter.
There's another break and the one and only Rufus Wainwright comes out onto the stage in a gold sequined singlet top with a black jacket, suspenders and a top hat. Classic bloody Rufus. He opens with April Fools from his very first record. The sound is, unfortunately, dreadful. You can barely hear his vocals and there is a SERIOUSLY intense high frequency jumping out whenever he speaks. Anyway, I hope it gets better through the gig.
Rufus says to us “It's so nice to be here in the zoo. Where I belong.” and the crowd loves it. He sings Barcelona next and it's so still and beautiful. Perfect as the sun is going down on us all here on the grass. His voice sounds just as beautiful as it did 25 years ago which is, in itself, an impressive feat. His classic lazy delivery and blasé gestures make me smile from ear to ear. I know you, Rufus. I know you so well. We all do. Because he is and always has been, unashamedly Rufus.
He jumps onto the Steinway (which unfortunately sounds like a toy piano out here...) and sings Danny Boy which is so terrific. I love this song. The lush harmonies are belted out by his band and it's glorious. He's so darn dramatic. Foolish Love is next and this is the first song of his I really fell in love with. The honky tonk, cabaret-esque piano as he sings “And the day Noah's ark floats down Park” is blissful. He is such an amazingly evocative lyricist and performer.
Rufus takes his jacket off and the crowd goes wild. “I know. I have an amazing mid-section.” He tells us a story about Leonard Cohen who listened to one of his songs for “two days straight” and then says “So yeah. Leonard was obsessed with my basically.” much to the crowd's delight. He has such a gloriously wicked sense of humour.
He introduces Beauty Mark with a lovely story about his mother Kate McGarrigle. It seems this was the first song she ever loved of his. Perhaps because it was penned about her. “I do have your taste and I do have your red face and long hands.”
I love all of his stories – he's led such an incredible life. How could you not with parents like McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright? He tells us how he sang for Joni Mitchell at her birthday (no big deal...) but he didn't get to sing Both Sides Now because Seal sang it. “And he was fucking amazing.” But after hearing Wainwright's version I know nobody could sing it like he does. His phrasing. The heartache in his high register. I look around me and there is not a dry eye in the house.
He ends the first set with a new song, Sword of Damocles, a very Rufus song about the state of the world right now. “Raise kindness, above all else. Avoid the books of hatred behind the shelves.” Yes, sir. Yes sir indeed.
After the interval he heads straight into the album Poses which is, amazingly, celebrating its 20th birthday this year. Rufus has had a costume change and he is now wearing a bedazzled green army coat covered in buttons, sequins and all manner of trinkets. He plays the album from start to finish, beginning with Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. He sheds his crazy jacket and dons the Songs for Lulu jacket – black, sparkly and running along the ground behind him.
The opening piano line of Poses is iconic. My favourite lyric in this song is “I did go from wanting to be someone now I'm drunk and wearing flip flops on Fifth Avenue” which conjures up the most amazing image. I feel like Wainwright has this energy about him that won't ever diminish. It's incredible really. He's been doing this for over 20 years and shows no signs of slowing.
California comes along and I smile from ear to ear. This is my favourite Rufus Wainwright song. The jangle of the acoustic guitar and the irony of the lyrics. It's bloody excellent. He ends the song in true Wainwright style with an elongated Elvis/cabaret style long note.
All of his songs have had immense meaning for me throughout my life. I sang One Man Guy with my best friend at university. I listened to both the Want albums over and over, desperately trying to get my head around the amazingly complex orchestral arrangements. He's a lifetime love for me.
He and his band finish up with Evil Angel, the last song on the Poses album and take a bow. They stand with their arms around each other and the crowd loves it. There's a standing ovation as the band leave the stage. But the crowd isn't satisfied. Eventually they come back on and Rufus introduces his band. They play Imaginary Love from his first album and the audience stays standing. It's magic. He ends with his famous cover of Across the Universe by The Beatles and this gives him the opportunity to show off his vocal abilities even further. Honestly the man's voice knows no bounds.
This gig was special. And I am so glad to have been a part of it. Rufus, your music will forever be the soundtrack to various parts of my life and there will always, always be a place in my heart for you.