Who but Rufus Wainwright could be this audacious?
The 34-year-old singer/songwriter, who has always done pretty much exactly what he pleased. He makes the kind of intelligent, beautiful (some might say baroque), quirky pop music that delights his hardcore fans but tends to baffle the Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson-devouring public.
Still, the unapologetic Wainwright has managed to etch a pretty solid place for himself in the pop firmament. He released his fifth pop album, “Release the Stars” earlier this year (it’s fantastic), and he returns with a year-end double whammy sure to stir some discussion.
Last year, Wainwright played two nights at Carnegie Hall, where he re-created Judy Garland’s 1961 career-defining comeback concert at the same venue. Song for song, and with the help of a 34-piece orchestra under the smooth direction of Stephen Oreums, he sang ’em all. The show was such a hit, he repeated the show in London, Paris and Los Angeles.
Thankfully, for those of us who weren’t able to attend this highly theatrical, wonderfully wacky event, Wainwright’s performance has been preserved not once, but twice.
The two-CD “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall” documents the Carnegie Hall concert, and the DVD “Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live from the London Palladium” records the London show.
Both are fantastic. There’s a high camp element to the concept — out gay man devotedly pays homage to one of the ultimate gay icons — but Wainwright’s talent is far too serious to make this a joke. On the contrary, this is, essentially, Wainwright’s way of recording an album of standards — but in such a uniquely Wainwright way.
Vocally, he strains sometimes, but for the most part, he’s digging these songs. The best of the bunch is Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow” (with Wainwright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, on piano). But Wainwright also delivers big time on “San Francisco,” “Do It Again,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the world’s slowest, sexiest “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
The DVD takes the edge over the CD if only because it lets us watch the highly expressive Wainwright, and we also get the chance to see his sister, Martha Wainwright, pull out all the dramatic stops on her solo “Stormy Weather.”
Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, joins Wainwright for “After You’ve Gone,” though there’s no sign of that other daughter (the Minnelli one). On the DVD, we get five bonus songs: “Get Happy,” “Hello Bluebird” (with Luft again), “Someone to Watch Over Me” (with Martha and Kate), “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (with Kate) and a reprise of “San Francisco.”
I can’t think of another contemporary singer/songwriter who could pull this off, but then again, Wainwright always has been kind of a throwback — a true entertainer who can do just about anything in his own inimitable way.