The world needs more Martha Wainwright songs.
Though she has only released four albums of her own material, including last year’s Goodnight City, which also features collaborations with others, Martha Wainwright’s live show feels like seeing a performance by a legend—a legend who is not above selling her own merch after the show.
Her set was preceded by opener Mappe Of from Toronto, a singer-songwriter who said it was his first time playing the States, which was surprising given his level of professionalism. The musician labels his sound “avant-folk,” which is an apt characterization. Sure, he and his band boast the kinds of pitch-perfect harmonies that make one think of bands like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, but they also have chops that point in all directions, including jazz, prog, electronica and Americana. Some of the lyrics tread familiar territory for their genre, but the singer’s impressive pipes carry the show and the unexpected dynamics of the songs, which start quite gently before growing to almost post-rock crescendos, lend the music a welcome intensity.
As for Wainwright, anyone who has seen her in concert her knows she has an unassuming command onstage, an unassailable sincerity in her performing style and one of the best voices around. Accompanied by an impressive trio of musicians (piano/guitar, bass and drums) with the ability to follow her wherever she goes, she performed a compelling set ranging from old to new.
Fans of her self-titled debut were rewarded with riveting takes of “Factory,” “When the Day Is Short” and “These Flowers,” among others. She also played “Hearts Club Band,” one of her very best songs, from her brilliant second album, I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings Too. Wainwright’s songs are chamber dramas—there is no mistaking their personal, often domestic dimension, which leaves much unsaid but nothing unexpressed.
Other highlights were the opener, “I Am a Diamond,” written by Anna and Kate McGarrigle (the latter is Wainwright’s mother) for an unrealized musical and, from her latest album, “Around the Bend,” “Franci” and “Traveller,” as well as the surprising, almost post-punk “So Down.” She also performed a song she co-wrote and recorded with Ed Harcourt, which was preceded by a funny and revealing song about how nervous she was to try to write something with someone else (and, as it turns out, she basically wrote it by herself).
As for her voice, it is a roller coaster of an instrument, bounding, leaping, yelping, cooing and soaring depending on what the song requires. She’s a consummate performer, exploring every corner of a song, emotionally and musically. During her encore, she performed a show-stopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” What more could we have wanted? In between songs, she hinted at personal difficulties that had made songwriting difficult lately. Here’s to hoping she gets back to it—the world needs more Martha Wainwright songs.