Wessex Hall, Poole Lighthouse
15th May 2005
I went along expecting waves of synths and elaborate loops, but surprisingly it was all “real” as far as I could see. Wainwright was backed by a six piece – keyboards doubling on accordion, double bass doubling (only three times) on bass guitar, lead guitar doubling on banjo (he uses banjo 3 or 4 times), drums and two female backing vocalists, both playing acoustic guitars. One of them doubled on violin. Add Wainwright himself on piano and acoustic guitar. So for his huge orchestral arrangments it’s a pretty stripped down outfit. And they can all play, and give the songs a more intimate sound. Quite a bit of the time there are three acoustic guitars playing together giving a great wash of strumming. The only major bit of synthesized string section that I noticed was obvious –the Bolero section in ‘Oh, What a World.’
I first saw him in the Hal Wilner Leonard Cohen tribute concert a year ago, where his poise and confidence among a group of heavyweight, well-established performers shouted at you. He still oozes confidence in front of an audience, and it’s not surprising when he lets that voice fly. I’ve only heard two other singers with his power and technique, and they were fellow-Canadian k.d. lang, and Raoul Malo of The Mavericks. His style of sliding over and across the rhythm is similar to k.d.lang too. Must be something in the Canadian air – I noticed he emphasized twice that he was Canadian (in spite of his American dad, Loudon Wainwright III). When a singer has such complex orchestration on record, you expect them to pale a little in concert. Not so. As with k.d. lang there’s some sort of power and edge to the voice that needs space to soar. Both are even more impressive live than on record.
The covers section towards the end was outstanding, starting with a homage to Jeff Buckley. He moved through Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, rearranged from his version on the Shrek! soundtrack album, for just himself on piano, plus the female backing singers who also took verses. Then it was the full band back on stage for a magnificent take on The Beatles’ Across The Universe, which brought the house down.
The series of encores ran to nearly half an hour, and he’d saved Oh, What A World! and I Don’t Know What It Is from Want One for back-to-back renditions. The whole band strip off to their underwear for the encores. I’ll say no more except that Rufus was enjoying it, some of the band look highly embarrassed. A brilliant show. One thing I noticed. I usually come home from rock concerts with definite ringing in my ears which lasts till I go to sleep. Not on this one. The sound was perfectly balanced and pitched precisely at the level for a live classical hall. Like Van Morrison, he was ‘quiet’ by current standards but plenty loud enough to be exciting.
Next time he comes through, I expect he’ll have a string section, a larger band, be in a much bigger rock hall, and tickets will be at least twice the modest £17.50 this show cost. I’m glad I’ve seen him at this stage of his career, and I’ll be back in the audience for the next one.
One minor complaint. Before his last encore he moaned that ‘some professor in the front row’ had been looking at his watch’ during the act. Yes, well … the tickets said ‘7.00 p.m.’ prominently. It was a sit down concert hall. When we got there, they announced it would actually now be 8 o’clock. Then it was ‘The concert is starting in one minute’ at 7.59. Then you sat waiting for ten minutes. Then you got a 25 minute unbilled support act (Joan As Policewoman- one of the backing singers). Then you got an interval for a 9 o’clock spot-on start. As 9 o’clock was clearly the plan from the outset, I’d rather know. As it ended at about five or ten past eleven, I can see that someone with (say) a babysitter, who’d left home for a 7 pm concert in a seated classical hall, might look at their watch. Do rock performers ever wonder how drama theatres and stage musicals manage to start at the same time every night, as advertised?