Live review: Loudon Wainwright at Largo at the Coronet
The folksy, Grammy-winning musician sings about optimism in the face of bad times.
Loudon Wainwright III was fighting a losing battle with his guitar Tuesday night at Largo at the Coronet: He wanted it to stay in tune, the guitar didn't. So roughly an hour into his show the L.A.-based folkie hatched the kind of plan that comes naturally to someone with Wainwright's experience. "I'm gonna do a blues now," he announced. "That way it don't matter."
That his plan worked probably says more about the ingenuity of Wainwright's lyrics than it does about his fiery juke-joint chops; the blues was about Paul Krugman and contained enough jokes to fill one of the Nobel Prize-winning economist's columns.
Yet even though he succeeded in distracting the audience from his tuning issues, Wainwright still couldn't resist making some minor mid-song adjustments to his instrument -- a perfect illustration of the unfailing attention to detail that's made Wainwright one of his generation's most well-regarded songwriters.
Tuesday's concert, the first stop on a brief California solo tour, came shortly after Wainwright received his first Grammy, for last year's "High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project," on which Wainwright pays tribute to the obscure 1920s banjo player. An admitted cynic who leavens his misanthropy with disarming sensitivity, Wainwright didn't pretend that the Grammy win victory lacked personal or professional meaning; he opened with "The Grammy Song," a smirking plea for acknowledgment from his 1983 album "Fame and Wealth."
But mostly the show felt like an exercise of old charms rather than an appeal for fresh ears.
Thanks to the uncommon precision of his writing, those charms haven't dulled over the course of Wainwright's 40-year career. Songs about the cruelty of show business, such as "Hollywood Hopeful" and "Grey in L.A.," sounded no less true for having helped Wainwright establish a lucrative presence on the silver screen; the latter, it's worth remembering, was written for Judd Apatow's 2007 smash "Knocked Up."
And his "family material," as he put it at one point, remains almost unbearably poignant. Tunes like "Out of Reach," "Surviving Twin" and "In C" suggested that if anyone examines his relationships with his father and his children as penetratingly as Wainwright does, he's not making the records to prove it.
The singer did take advantage of his new status as a Grammy winner to talk up a forthcoming album of songs he said were inspired by "the new depression." ("I'm gonna cash in!" he added with a laugh.) In one of them he observed an unhappily married couple forced to stay together by their inability to sell their house -- a typical scenario for this lover of the everyday absurd.
Another took a less familiar tack, assuring those affected by the current economic crisis that "it's not the end of the world, it's just the middle of the night." Wainwright prefaced the tune by saying that after years of serving as "the loyal opposition to the John Denver / Dan Fogelberg bloc," he was now attempting to cultivate a more optimistic tone.
And so he did, though not without his fair share of sour notes.
Photo credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times