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Review: Rufus Wainwright at the Orpheum

May 14, 2012 | 10:22 am

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright is a virtuoso ironist, and he came right out of the gate with it at the Orpheum on Saturday. For the a cappella opener “Candles,” he sang, “I tried to do all that I can, but the churches have run out of candles,” while surrounded by dozens of lighted votives. It was a good joke in the midst of quite a scene -- the Orpheum stage wreathed in flickering darkness and hymnal harmonies.

Of course, when the lights kicked on, Wainwright was wearing gold pants and cheap sunglasses befitting a Serbian drug runner. Try as he might, be can’t be austere for too long without winking. But all the better for us -- Saturday’s set caught one of the finest and most idiosyncratic singer-songwriters working today at his most flirty and commanding.

Wainwright’s new Mark Ronson-produced album, “Out of the Game,” was welcomed as a warm and spritzy return to form after a long stretch of operatic and quite serious records. That album was the backstop for Saturday’s show, and even those raised on the bleary downtown suites of “Poses” had to give into it. “Out of the Game” is an album of devotion that never tries too hard to win you over, and the bit of Vegas torchiness that he brought to the velvety “Song of You,” “Respectable Dive” and lite-funk “Barbara” made the solid bones of his songwriting feel even more masterful.

The title track, a dating-scene vet’s grateful look in the rear view mirror at that life, had an Eagles-y, canyon country wistfulness that made the sentiment totally believable.  That's even more true when one considers it next to “Montauk,” a guileless welcome-to-the-word ode to his young daughter, in which he promises, “One day you’ll come to Montauk and see your dad wearing a kimono / and your other dad pruning roses.” Who knew that Rufus Wainwright of all people would make a great dad-rocker?

The set came just days after President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which lent an even more celebratory feel to Wainwright’s songs about kicking his shoes off and committing. But Wainwright’s music has always been in dialogue with his famous family’s catalog, and several covers of his mom's and dad’s work connected generations.

The night featured three songs by his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle. Two were delivered by members of Rufus Wainwright's  backing band, including Teddy Thompson’s plainspoken read on “Saratoga Summer Song” and Krystle Warren’s more explosive “I Don’t Know.” Wainwright choked back reservations about performing “On My Way to Town,” claiming that he plays it way better in his house over breakfast but never feels right doing it live. He shouldn’t have worried -- the simplicity of the piano arrangement belied the timelessness of the song, one he clearly felt in his marrow from childhood. And his version of his father Loudon’s “One Man Guy” let the low register of his voice resonate with the romance of self-imposed loneliness.

But those heartfelt odes were leavening moments in an otherwise regal pop show. The droll disco vamp of “Bitter Tears” and the Springsteen-swinging sax riffs of “14th Street” proved he could do pretty much anything, and even his cake-frosting singles have a lifetime of songwriting skill underneath. When he ribbed guitarist Thompson for not wearing his required sunglasses for the big set closer, it didn’t seem to matter if the church had run out of candles. Wainwright had brought his own fireworks.


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Album review: Rufus Wainwright's 'Out of the Game'

Live: Nick Waterhouse at Center for the Arts Eagle Rock

-- August Brown

Photo: Rufus Wainwright. Credit: Kevin Westernberg