I know Rufus Wainwright is not a theater person…yet. One day he’ll actually write the musical version of Tales of the City, which has been buzzed about for years, and then he’ll justify my including this concert review on a theater blog.
Wainwright’s wall of sound concert anticipates `Stars’ release
Before he was famous as the star of a televised murder trial, Phil Spector was a vaunted music producer noted for creating a distinctive “wall of sound’’ in ‘60s tunes by the likes of Ike and Tina Turner (“River Deep, Mountain High’’) and the Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’’).
As Rufus Wainwright, one of the best and brightest pop craftsmen out there, matures as a singer and songwriter, he’s entering his own “wall of sound’’ phase.
This was especially evident Wednesday night when Wainwright performed a sold-out show — or “showette’’ as he called it — at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.
Sort of a public rehearsal, Wainwright and his seven-piece band (guitar, bass, drums, three horns and a multi-instrumentalist who played piano when Wainwright was on acoustic guitar) used the show to work through the elaborate tunes on Wainwright’s upcoming album, “Release the Stars,’’ which drops May 15.
On many of the new songs, Wainwright is clearly going for a Spector-ish feel, with epic arrangements for strings (heard on pre-recorded tracks), backing vocals and electronic samples.
It’s a style he first demonstrated on “Beautiful Child,’’ a thrilling track from 2003’s “Want One’’ (and also a highlight of Wednesday’s show). Filled with symphonic, Wagnerian chaos, the song was clearly laying the groundwork for new tunes like “Release the Stars,’’ “Tiergarten,’’ “Between My Legs’’ “Do I Disappoint You?’’ and “Slideshow.’’
Such baroque arrangements give Wainwright ample opportunity to show off his grandly theatrical side and marshal his considerable musical talents. He’s always pushing his voice farther and farther, and, surprisingly, he keeps gaining more vocal control.
Unfortunately the wall of sound was too often a wall of noise on Wednesday, with the sound mix at the Palace of Fine Arts often tending toward terrible, especially when the live band was augmented by tracks.
But the audience didn’t seem to mind. They were there for Wainwright’s trademark blend of quirkiness and brilliance, and they got what they came for.
It says a lot about the 33-year-old poperatic performer that his best new songs — “Nobody’s Off the Hook,’’ “Not Ready to Love,’’ “I’m Leaving for Paris No. 2’’ — don’t’ seem at all out of place next to classics like the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day’’ and Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All’’ (both songs are from Wainwright’s near-legendary re-creation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert).
The first single from the new album is the ballad “Going to a Town,’’ a classic love-gone-wrong break-up tune. But in this case, the misbehaving lover is America, and Wainwright has had enough.
After singing the tune and praising the Bay Area’s liberal slant, Wainwright praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “God, I love her,’’ he said. “I want her to be the mother of my children. I guess I’m not having children.’’
That distinctive Wainwright humor is apparent in the new songs “Rules and Regulations,’’ which he says is about “an overweight, out-of-shape guy watching the Olympics,’’ and “Tulsa,’’ a musically complex tribute to Killers lead singer Brandon Flowers that begins, “You taste of potato chips in the morning.’’
Though his head is clearly in the new material at the moment, Wainwright did throw in a few older tunes, mostly from “Want One’’ (“I Don’t Know What It Is,’’ “Harvester of Hearts,’’ “14th Street’’ and “Pretty Things’’) and “Want Two’’ (“The Art Teacher,’’ “Gay Messiah’’).
He also dedicated an old Irish tune, “Macushla,’’ to his mother, Kate McGarrigle, and dueted beautifully with old friend (and opening act) Teddy Thompson on “One Man Guy,’’ written by Rufus’ father, Loudon Wainwright III.
Even in a throw-away show like this one, when he’s obviously getting ready for bigger, better things, Rufus Wainwright is able to please his fans, have some fun and reassert his peculiar pop genius.
Visit Rufus’ official Web site at www.rufuswainwright.com.
Stream samples of three of the new songs here.