Bringing an intimate jazz-club vibe to a grand music-hall stage, Rufus Wainwright resisted the urge to play to the gallery at this packed Palladium show.
The 48-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter was in laid-back mood, keeping his fondness for operatic melodrama in check as he played a two-act set backed only by a low-voltage chamber-pop trio, and no drummer. Even the video backdrop was understated, a collage of folksy illustrations hand-drawn by Wainwright himself.
Only his sparkly red shoes hinted at his more flamboyant side, their resemblance to Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz possibly a sly homage to the 1961 Judy Garland concert that Wainwright restaged in this very venue back in 2007.
Over a year has passed since Wainwright released his first album of new pop material in almost a decade, Unfollow The Rules, a rootsy celebration of domestic contentment and long-term commitment. Thanks to the pandemic, he is only now catching up on postponed live dates. Dominated by the album’s full track list, this show was rich in mellow midlife introspection. Distilled into compact small-band arrangements, the wry jukebox Americana of You Ain’t Big and the genteel saloon-bar shuffle Peaceful Afternoon sounded pleasant enough, but somewhat sedate. The climactic Hatred at least had a pleasingly deranged edge, but the soaring emotional peaks, lush vocal textures and complex harmonic structures that define Wainwright’s best work were all thin on the ground.
Wainwright punctuated new album tracks with a decidedly retro selection of covers, taking a polite stab at Neil Young’s Harvest before putting an incongruously rowdy spin on Leonard Cohen’s jingle-jangle mourning with a lusty gallop through So Long, Marianne. Electing to tackle Sandy Denny’s much-loved, much-covered, 1968 folk-rock classic Who Knows Where The Time Goes? was bold, but his respectful facsimile inevitably fell short of the original’s tremulous, luminous, sinewy beauty. Scottish operatic soprano Janis Kelly also joined Wainwright to share spine-tingling vocals on The Last Rose of Summer, an early 19th century Irish folk ballad which the singer previously performed at his mother Kate McGarrigle’s funeral in 2010.
Strangely, Wainwright chose to largely ignore his own canon of crowd-pleasing classics, revisiting just a handful of older songs including a tumbling, whirling, erotically intoxicated Poses and an achingly lovely version of Argentina, the yearning serenade he wrote about missing his German husband Jörn Weisbrodt while touring South America. He saved his biggest British hit, the gorgeously sullen Going to a Town, for the final encore. There was enough brushed-velvet melody and self-deprecating wit in this set to earn Wainwright a rapturous reception, but his high-art drama queen side was sadly underplayed. Glittery footwear aside, this muted show was definitely a long way from Kansas.