You’ll attend a Rufus Wainwright show for the metamodern panache of an old soul; more than likely you’ll leave with a full, flooded heart.
The Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA
“ATTN: Fog Machines Will Be Used in This Production”
My companion wondered aloud over pre-show dumplings exactly how theatrical this concert would shape up to be, and these warning signs plastered on the entry doors of the Keswick Theater seemed to give a pretty good idea. This is Rufus Wainwright after all: recent works of his drew inspiration from Shakespearean sonnets (2016 album Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets) and a Roman emperor’s love affair (his second (!) opera (!!), Hadrian). His embrace of the most classic of classics is less emulation than full-on channeling. He arrived on stage wearing a gold sequined vest and a tall satin top hat askew on his head like some sort of in futuro-fabulous Dickensian vagrant. I actually don’t remember much of the fog machines after that.
Capitalizing on the anniversary/nostalgia tour trend, the setlist of the show consisted of selections from Wainwright’s self-titled debut (1998) and a performance of his most widely-known album, Poses (2001), in its entirety. He switched up the tracklist and opened with “April Fools,” by far the sunniest single (pointed lyrics aside) of the album, following up with the languid tempo of “Barcelona,” Wainwright’s head lolling from side to side as phrases slid from minor to major and back again.
Conversation peppered the front half of the show, demarcating breaks between these slower pieces. He prefaced his performance of “Sally Ann” with an anecdote about Leonard Cohen (describing him as “kind, generous, and, well… Leonard Cohen”), a man who also happens to be the maternal grandfather of Rufus’ daughter. Despite being in a parenting partnership with Leonard’s daughter, Lorca Cohen, Wainwright claimed to not know the man well (“I suppose better than most, actually,” he conceded with a laugh). Lorca told him that Leonard listened to “Sally Ann” for two days on repeat, a gesture that was accepted as proof positive of an unspoken mutual admiration. It was an intimate segue to the song, and another reminder of the intergenerational dynasties intertwined in Wainwright’s own identity.
In place of some of the debut album tracks, Wainwright included his rebuke of Trump-era politics in recent single “Sword of Damocles” and an unbearably gorgeous cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” the latter inspiring a seated audience to rise to their feet in an impromptu ovation.
Wainwright was accompanied by a full stage of session musicians and back-up singers, his trademark symphonic compositions filled in here with synth approximations. He played an upright piano for a good number of his songs: returning to the stage after intermission in a gold spangled, feathered cape, he perched at the piano for “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” hands bouncing confidently over the keys as arpeggiated cascades twinkled their way down the keyboard. Wainwright stripped down (cape discarded, backing musicians at rest) for the hypnotic minimalism of “Greek Song,” his voice diving and cresting like gentle ocean waves.
Wainwright played through Poses in sequence, the audience predictably amped up by love letter/burn book entry “California” and reverent as the stage went dark for his cover of his father’s folk ballad “One Man Guy,” a lone spotlight illuminating the singer and his piano. A cloak of black feathers for the clattering crawl of “Evil Angel” and a fitted red blazer for the three song encore – indeed we were witness to one man’s personal opera.
Wainwright closed the show with Beatles classic “Across the Universe,” lending it an interpretation that was more upbeat than contemplative. But times have changed, even since he first recorded the cover in the early aughts. “Nothing’s gonna change my world” – this night, the mantra was one of deterministic joy. It kept us warm as we exited the venue into the chill of a cloudless December night. You’ll attend a Rufus Wainwright show for the metamodern panache of an old soul; more than likely you’ll leave with a full, flooded heart.