SAN FRANCISCO -- Rufus Wainwright is not a flashy dresser.
At least not onstage.
Stepping Monday night onto the Fillmore stage -- where his father, Loudon
Wainwright III, has never played, the young Wainwright crowed -- the
singer sported thick but restrained sideburns and was modestly dressed
in a short, tight black leather jacket, gray shirt and black pants.
The black scarf tied around his neck gave the troubadour just the needed
touch of dash.
Like his look, Wainwright's sound cannot easily be classified. From set
opener "Danny Boy"
(RealAudio excerpt), a rhythmical hypnotic ballad of lost love, to the hymnlike
(RealAudio excerpt), the openly gay songwriter appeared to channel musical
influences that encompass classical composer Guiseppe Verdi to Tin-Pan-Alley
bullfrog Tom Waits.
San Anselmo, Calif., fan Megan Marsh, 16, agreed that Wainwright's music
blurs boundaries. "It's timeless, sexless and ageless -- it spans
generations," she said.
When he played here last year, Wainwright opened for pop singer/songwriter
Sean Lennon. This time, Wainwright was the headliner on a bill that
included his sister, Martha, and Australian singer/songwriter Ben Lee.
An eclectic crowd -- gay and straight, young and old, male and female --
welcomed the seductive-eyed singer/songwriter as if he were a hometown
hero instead of the Montreal-raised son of veteran singer/songwriters
Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters.
Wainwright's local popularity can be attributed in part to the 20-something
singer's stance as an exuberantly fey performer. But mostly it's because
of his critically acclaimed self-titled debut LP released last year.
Wainwright's cabaret-prone pop suits what can be loosely termed the San
Francisco Bay Area sensibility. Beyond the musical legacy of his parents,
Wainwright's plaintive, driving melodies, rubato rhythms and wryly
romantic lyrics suggest a host of influences ranging from "Threepenny
Opera" composer Kurt Weill to French balladeer Jacques Brel.
When Wainwright's ringing, hypnotically insistent, nasal voice drills to
the emotional core of a ballad such as "Damned Ladies," which was inspired
by his love of opera, it resonates with a buzzing tension born of what
sounds, paradoxically, like exultant heartbreak.
The night before seeing Wainwright at the Fillmore, Los Angeles fan John
Arroyo, 18, had caught his show in Santa Cruz, Calif. "His style is so
personal and innocent," Arroyo said. "He's a kid, but his music reaches
mature people, too. It's vintage music, yet it's new at the same time."
Playing a 90-minute set with two encores that included every song from
his album, Wainwright was backed by his sister on vocals, Jack Petruzzelli
on guitar and mandolin, Kevin Hupp on drums and Jeff Hill on double bass.
Wainwright, who claims such classic voices as Al Jolson and Edith Piaf
as well as the Beatles and Brit-pop act the Eurythmics as figurative
precursors, alternated between piano and acoustic guitar on his gorgeous
songs that beguilingly combine lush, elongated melody lines with
infectiously snappy beats.
Sipping a beer between songs, the relaxed Wainwright chatted playfully
with the audience.
He limp-wristedly strummed his guitar, chided closet-dwelling performers
-- "No other f---ing artist will say they're gay!" -- and introduced a
pretty new song about "an affair I never had with a beach boy in Greece"
with a curious, catty story about a notorious Montreal psychic. He led
the audience in a rendition of "Happy Birthday" in honor of Hupp and
even granted one audience member a forkful of the drummer's birthday
cake. Accepting a love letter from a fan, he sighed and said, "I'll
probably read it tonight -- alone."
As blue and pink lights shone attractively through stage smoke on
Wainwright at the baby grand, the singer struck a suave figure as he
swayed to the beat of "Imaginary Love," lifting his hands momentarily
from the keys and cupping them as if to draw the melody from the instrument.
Many in the audience sang along to the bouncy "Foolish Love" ("I don't
want to hold you and feel so helpless/ I don't want to smell you and
lose my senses") as he scrunched up his face in a grimace of intense
emotion. Paying tribute to his mother with "Beauty Mark," he gushed,
"She's one of the greatest songwriters of the century" and added grudgingly,
"Yeah, my dad's great, too."
Martha, in a black scoop-necked sweater, green scarf tied around her
neck and black skirt adorned with a leaf pattern, harmonized plangently
on "Sally Ann" (Canadian slang for Salvation Army), a song about the
same lost love Wainwright immortalized in his gratifying "Danny Boy."
More than three hours before, Martha, whose singing straddles the middle
ground between folk-pop songstresses Rickie Lee Jones and Jewel, had
begun the evening with a five-song, 25-minute set that began with "No
One at All," a wistful ballad that graduated to a keening wail.
Her dark brown hair parted in the middle and wrapped in a bun, her heavy
lidded eyes giving her face an Aztec cast, Martha's graceful acoustic
guitar playing was accompanied by Tom Mennier's delicate piano arpeggios,
which gave her rendition of Cole Porter's "Allez-vous-en" a rueful
underpinning; Lily Lanken's backup vocals sweetened the dirgelike set
closer, "Bring Back My Heart."
Brown curly-haired Ben Lee, the appealing ex-Noise Addict singer/songwriter, followed with 45 minutes of tuneful pop rock.
"I had seen [Lee] a year ago in New York," recalled Kirk Read, 26, of
San Francisco. "Now he has a less-understated quality that reminds me of
post-Replacements Paul Westerberg. His ideas are growing, and he's more
raw -- he's got this sort of foxy straight-boy posture that's collegiate,
but not frat boy."
Pushing his suit-jacket sleeves up after his second number, "Song 4 You,"
Lee, who resembles a young version of actor Matthew Modine, admitted wryly, "I know that's a major fashion faux pas, but the
sleeves hang down over the strings when I'm playing, so please forgive me."
The singer/songwriter's set ranged from the hard-rocking
HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get- music/Lee,_Ben/Cigarettes_Will_Kill_You.ram">"Cigarettes Will Kill You"
music/Lee,_Ben/Cigarettes_Will_Kill_You.ram">"Cigarettes Will Kill You"
(RealAudio excerpt) to the reggae-inflected "Burn to Shine"
(RealAudio excerpt) -- which got a few members of the mostly sedate
Fillmore crowd bouncing a bit -- to a tender "Away With the Pixies," which
keyboardists Nina Siegenthaler and Lara Meyerratken cushioned with sweetly
haunting, calliopelike ornamentation.