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Live review: Rufus Wainwright at Long Beach Terrace Theater

Rufus Wainwright

Some musicians aren’t natural performers -- the aspect of standing on a stage could even be antithetical to their music -- but Rufus Wainwright, to his core, is a darling of the spotlight.

In his Saturday night show at the stately Long Beach Terrace Theater, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle's son mixed winsome self-deprecation with the personality of a buddy who’d watch “Gossip Girl” with you, supplying catty commentary all the while.

It disarmed the adoring audience into thinking it was watching a good old friend, one who just happens to conjure elegant spires of baroque folk-pop inspired by high art forms like opera and the quotidian topics of family, relationships and drunken realizations in flip-flops on Fifth Avenue. On the cusp of releasing his sixth album of original material, Wainwright is experienced yet still making discoveries.

Much of Wainwright’s music is concerned with the danger of surrendering to love. In one of the night’s most stirring performances, Wainwright played “Leaving for Paris No. 2” at the piano, asking a lover not to follow him down the crooked streets, a wistful case of “the lady doth protest too much.” Wainwright interrupted himself to start the song over, prompting nervous laughter from the crowd, which was seemingly oblivious to any mistakes.

Alternating between piano and a series of acoustic guitars handed to him from a quick-footed member of his entourage, Wainwright performed solo all night in a natty vest and ascot in front of a heavy violet curtain. He often traded between his languorous songs and his more upbeat material, following up “Paris” with “Beauty Mark,” a bouncy ode to the features he did and didn’t inherit from his mother.

For “Greek Song,” one of the most sumptuous tracks from his 2001 album, “Poses,” Wainwright showed off his exquisite phrasing, conversational yet dense, stripping the song down to only his guitar.

Though Wainwright aired plenty of beloved tunes from his early albums, he also performed from “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” his studio album due this spring. He launched into a triptych of piano songs inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets, asking the audience to hold their applause till the end. In comparison with his older material, the songs were esoteric in their structure, sometimes pooling to a still center, other times quickening with momentum.

Which isn’t to say that his new material is so distanced from his old. “Zebulon,” which Wainwright said is set to appear on the new album, was dusky and mesmerizing in its escapist but haunted fantasy. It broke into an unlikely companion piece, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” bright on the surface but pained underneath.

In his three-song encore, Wainwright performed a song from his opera “Prima Donna,” which will run in London this spring. He also covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a standard for him and a gracious nod to the opening duo the Webb Sisters, who re-created the rich backup harmonies they plied Cohen with on his recent tour.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: Wainwright performs at the Long Beach Terrace Theater. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

 
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