I wonder if Rufus Wainwright ever looks around on this tour, and in a moment of self-deprecation, asks himself, "Am I even the most talented guy on this stage?" If he did, it would be no false modesty, but that is not to underrate his own immense talent. It's just that he has the gift and the wisdom to surround himself with other great artists and to let them share his spotlight.
On what turned out to be a pleasantly temperate, cloudy evening at the Iroquois Amphitheater, the night began with opener Krystle Warren, who is also in Wainwright's backing band. Just a lone figure with a guitar on a stage crowded with equipment, the voice that emerged quickly drew attention as the crowd continued to straggle in. Warren is blessed with one of those commanding voices, not unlike Nina Simone. She has the bell-like clarity and warmth that instantly draws you in, and she was even able to get the still-gathering crowd to join in a choir of voices for the refrain of her song, "Forget Me Not." It was a lovely lead-in to the appearance of Adam Cohen and his band.
Cohen takes the stage with a sort of smoldering elegance, backed by what he recently described to me as his "Swiss Army knife" of a band. Both multi-instrumentalists and back-up singers, Mai Bloomfield and Michael Chaves handle cello and guitar, respectively, and Chaves adds percussion and keys as well. Cohen performed a set of songs from his excellent new album, Like a Man, which sound even better live, actually. Vocally, Cohen's deep baritone complements the delicate guitar melodies that express the sensuality of his songs so well. He has the easy grace and humor of his father (that would be Leonard Cohen), and seems poised to extend the artistic legacy of the family name. Cohen ended with an affectionate cover of "So Long Marianne," inviting the audience to sing along if they knew the words.
A technical issue delayed Wainwright's appearance a bit, but once the bugs were worked out and the stage was set in flickering candlelight from votives atop every amp, Rufus made his appearance from the dark, singing his new song, "Candles," soaring tenor unaccompanied before the band joined in. If there's one thing you can say about Rufus, it's that he knows how to make an entrance. Oldies like "April Fools" were sprinkled throughout, but the show was dominated by his newest songs from Out of the Game. Genres bend to his will as Wainwright swings effortlessly between the slightly country-tinged styling of "Respectable Dive" to the melancholy piano ballad of "The Art Teacher," to the unrestrained verve of cabaret, singing Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away." The man can out-Liza Liza (a fact I'm sure he enjoys).
Wainwright took a break to remember his mother, the great Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in 2010. To sing two of his mother's songs, he introduced fellow band members Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren, along with his pianist Andy Burton, and left the stage. Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda Thompson -- I feel like I'm announcing an All-Star lineup) performed the stunningly beautiful "Saratoga Summer Song" and Warren wowed again with McGarrigle's "I Don't Know."
When everyone returned to the stage, and showing off an embarrassment of riches, Wainwright invited his second backup singer, Charysse Blackman, along with Thompson, to help him sing a cover of his father's (Loudoun Wainwright III, soon to be appearing at LFPL), "One Man Guy." This was something of a show stopper, but as they say in the infomercials, there's more! After donning sunglasses to accompany the electronic cool of dance song, "Bitter Tears" and then reconvening for the encore, Wainwright invited Cohen to come back out and sing Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel" with him, a wonderful moment in a show packed with them. He ended with "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," to roaring applause and an audience that probably would have stuck around for more if the lights hadn't finally come up just slightly before the witching hour.
As entertaining and musically rich as this show was, one primary thing I came away with -- and maybe others did too -- was an appreciation of Wainwright's unselfishness in giving these other fine artists their moments in the spotlight. And, flashes of sly humor aside, when you consider the broad targets presented in our current culture wars, Wainwright's message of mutual respect and generosity is the one that resonates longest.
Singer Krystle Warren opened for Cohen and Wainwright.
Adam Cohen looking dapper, singing love songs.
Rufus Wainwright and his large band fill the stage.
Wait, what do these pants remind me of? Cows? Yes, cows...
Backup singers extraordinaire: Krystle Warren and Charysse Blackman
[Photo Credits: Lee Burchfield]