For a man dressed as a pre-Raphaelite knight on third album Want One and an Ophelia-like figure on upcoming album Want Two, Rufus Wainwright walks on in the relatively normal attire of a blue shirt.
But then you notice the large sequined sewn-on badge, and then the bright red jeans as you peek through the crowd. Yes, he can’t help being a little ostentatious.
But that’s why we like him isn’t it? That’s why the Carling Academy Islington has people squashed right to the back door to see this young man perform the live debut of Want Two, out on March 7.
The man does flamboyance well, penning operatic ‘bel canto’ style songs on all of his albums, with sweeping orchestras and bewitching poetic lyrics. You half expect the London Philharmonic to be waiting for him on stage tonight.
Instead, we are greeted with just him and a tumultuous piano playing opening track, the Latin incantatory Agnus Dei, followed by the mellifluous but an equally spartan version of Hometown Waltz. Not quite the ‘popera’ we’ve come to know and admire.
Stripped down, each song appears hauntingly desolate, focusing on Wainwright’s golden nasal voice rising and falling, booming and wailing. The Art Teacher, a tale of love unknown and thus unrequited, has the piano jogging out a breathless rhythm. It’s glad of the company when his three-man band finally join him on stage for the first ever live performance of current single The One I Love.
Effortlessly sanguine on stage, the son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Katie McGarrigle has performance in his blood. Not least in his witty interim tales spoken with his openly gay lisp, exciting a guffaw from his audience when he exclaims most of his fans are heterosexual.
Expert comedic timing grants him lots of laughs with tales of fancying a hetero art teacher who he meets in a gym, hence the aforementioned song; drawling out “There’s a vacancy in the papacy” when someone calls out “Rufus for pope!” and, before the lolling solo guitar strums of Crumb By Crumb, says he “wrote it about someone who I liked…because I was bored.” Ooh ya bitch.
There are many treats on offer tonight. His version of hero Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah (which appears in Shrek II), is bold with hints of Jeff Buckley, though it’s a sign of his charm that he can forget the second verse, laughingly sing the first verse again, and still come away flawless. From Want One he sings Vibrate, Beautiful Child and Want – the latter two with the band – and old favourite Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, off second album Poses, again with his three “male members” as he suggestively calls them.
Nearly two hours and two encores later he finally departs with an animated wave. He may have pared down his big sound, almost to a disappointing level, but let’s face it, the crowd are in love with him, they saw him exclusively in an intimate setting, he charmed them, we lapped it up – the man simply can’t fail.