Rufus Wainwright Blurs Boundaries In Concert

Openly gay singer/songwriter woos eclectic crowd with haunting ballads and personal charm.

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

"Imaginary Love"

(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


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.