Before Rufus Wainwright has even entered the stage, an announcer curtly issues a prohibition on applause. Apparently we’re allowed to clap once Rufus has left the stage, and the first half has come to a close. Although the Manchester audience politely mutes, it feels gimmicky and staged. So too does Wainwright’s entrance, which takes the form of a painfully slow and silent quasi-death march, before the Canadian singer-songwriter finally takes his place at the stage’s only feature, a gloss-black grand piano. “Indulgent”; “A bit pretentious”: it’s not that hard to imagine how a show like this might be received.
The setting is bare and almost completely black. On a large screen, a slow-blinking eye – the same thickly-painted eye that adorns the cover of Wainwright’s new album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu – flutters its lashes with a hypnotic, if slightly sinister, allure. As befits the Gay Messiah’s taste for the shamelessly flamboyant and the ever-so-slightly gaudy, Wainwright wears an elegant black evening dress, decorated with a feathered plume. His uneasy tran-walk and boyish shoulders probably belong more on Manchester’s Canal Street, but tonight isn’t about Rufus Wainwright, his sexuality, his extravagance or his likeable charm. Tonight is a dedication to his late mother, Kate McGarrigle.
The new album – a slightly confounding blend of the deeply elegiac and the not-too-convincingly upbeat – is a demanding listen. At times it’s easier to glide along with Wainwright’s familiar melancholic daydreaming (Sad With What I Have, True Loves) than it is to stay engaged with songs that either fall rather oddly between moods or feel a little incongruous (Martha, Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now!, The Dream). At others, his mastery of music and songwriting is striking. Even more so in the live setting.
Without the opportunity to express its admiration and perhaps also its feelings of sympathy, there’s an awkward tension in the audience throughout the first half that has no place to vent. It’s like the audience has been forced to collectively hold its breath and is waiting patiently, slightly despairingly, for someone to permit a giant exhalation.
Tense too is Wainwright. Lulu is by far the most musically complex and vocally demanding record Wainwright has released. Written entirely for the piano and influenced more by opera and classical composition and less by pop and his Puckish wit, Wainwright has put himself under the spotlight. There’s little doubt that Wainwright intended this album and tour to be a profound and personal challenge. The focus of work and musical dedication, Wainwright’s poignant coping mechanism.
Although Wainwright’s neck visibly strains with notes that seem to climb and dive arrhythmically, like clouds of mating swallows, it’s a close-to-flawless performance. Wainwright gives it every last ounce, making the humble songwriter appear more like the classically-trained virtuoso.
It all, of course, panders to Wainwright’s naturally dramatic aesthetic. It’s a performance with both Edith Piaf-like tragedy (and so nearly self-destruction) and Rachmaninoff-like audacity. Perhaps more rehearsed than spontaneous and more performance than concert, this was, in truth, a first half that was more theatre than show. Sticking to the dramatic blueprint, Rufus slowly exits the stage, in silence, before the audience is able to finally puff out its cheeks and catch breath.
The darkness of the first half is met by the the lightness of the second. It’s an amazing contrast, but one that reveals the troubled troubadour to be in surprisingly high spirits. So high, in fact, that he botches the majority of the remaining songs. Favourites such as Poses, Dinner At Eight and Memphis Skyline are played, along with some of the poppier songs from Wainwright’s self-titled first album, which sound a little tame against the harshness and sobriety of the first half.
But Wainwright is a complete one-off, and perhaps the only living performer that could pull off a piano-only set riddled with comical pauses, mis-steps and memory shortfalls and still prompt a standing ovation. Wainwright’s affable nature and camp cuteness have probably saved the day in the past, but tonight he could have said nothing and this crowd would have sung the words, hummed the melodies and stood with him come the end.
After a bizarre appearance by “He’s cute” Mark Radcliffe, who provides drums for Going To A Town, the set closes in celebration of Wainwright’s dear mother. “We used to walk for hours on the Marsden Moors. She loved it there,” Wainwright recalls, before performing a version of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Walking Song. Tears fall from his face onto the piano keys below as he struggles to complete the final, tender verses. The night, like Rufus himself, has undoubtedly been indulgent and occasionally imperfect; but, in the end, remains a thing of charming beauty.