As I entered Carnegie Hall for the first time, I was struck by the simplicity of the fabled concert hall. Oval shaped to be acoustically superb, the white and gold interior is enormous but its ornateness restrained. On stage, a black Steinway a little off center with a single spotlight shining down on it. It’s the perfect venue for Rufus Wainwright to perform his entire new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a collection of nine original songs and three adaptations of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, largely dedicated to his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in January of sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
While Rufus is known for his lush orchestrations, this performance featured piano and vocals only. At Carnegie Hall. Even as I write this entry, I’m reflecting how special this evening was, and how it may be looked back on as one of his finest performances. It’s certainly a jewel in this queen’s crown. The evening was presented in two parts. Part one featured his new material as a song cycle, meaning no applause permitted until the cycle was completed, which just added to the drama, tragedy and celebration of death and love.
As the lights dimmed, two doors on the left side of the stage opened and Rufus slowly emerged, approaching the piano wearing a 17-foot-long black feathered cape designed by Zaldy Goco. He opened with “Who Are You New York,” the premiere performance of this song in his hometown, “Sad With What I Have,” and “Martha,” an ode to his sister written before their mother’s death. This song brought chills and a tear to my eye as his voice quivered when he sang.
His adaptation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 43, 20 and 10 were standouts and was accompanied with eerily interesting visuals by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. The heartbreak of McGarrigle’s passing communicated though the simple imagery of eyes in black make-up with exaggerated lashes slowly opening, closing, painfully wincing and tearing up was stunning. So simple yet so effective, and timed perfectly to Rufus’ aching crescendos. He ended the first half of the concert with three beautiful songs, “The Dream,” “What Would I Ever Do With a Rose?” and “Zebulon.” Check out this video of him talking about the body of work and inspiration for Lulu:
After the intermission, Rufus reappeared in less regalia but as the Rufus we know and love. He opened the second act with “Beauty Mark,” “Grey Gardens” and “The Art Teacher.” Then he introduced his longtime collaborator and friend Stephen Oremus to take over on piano as he ventured into Judy territory. This was Rufus’ first performance at Carnegie Hall since “the scene of the crime,” where he famously recreated, reinterpreted and re-imagined the iconic legend’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert and live album. Judy moments would reoccur three times during the night. In the first medley, he performed two of my favorites, “A Foggy Day in London Town” and “The Man That Got Away.”
My favorite moment occurred when he invited his sister, Martha, to join him on stage. Together they performed two songs in French, an homage to their childhood growing up in Quebec. The first, “Nuits de Miami,” was a French version of “Moon Over Miami” written in 1935 that Rufus discovered in an old Josephine Baker songbook. Amazing. The next, “Complainte de la Butte” was a song their grandmother and mother would sing to them as children. Rufus would later record it himself and be featured in the film, Moulin Rouge. I really love this song. Then they sang Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous “Hallelujah,” which is my favorite song of all time. Even Rufus’ unexpected belch in the middle of the song couldn’t derail the moment. Though in hindsight it was funny that he said “here’s a song you’ve never heard… like this before.” Isn’t that the truth? He ended the second act with “Dinner at Eight,” dedicated to his father Loudon who was in the audience, and fan favorite “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.”
Living in New York conjures experiences that make you thankful for living here. I caught my mind wandering for a moment, thinking it’s a cold Monday night in December, and I’m watching a brilliant artist play piano, tell stories, make me laugh and sing his heart out at Carnegie Hall. Where else does this happen? Then to experience three standing ovation-worthy encores, well it just doesn’t get any better folks.
The first encore featured the dramatic “Going to a Town” and the second of three Judy moments, this time a medley of “You Made Me Love You,” “For Me and My Gal” and everyone’s favorite, “The Trolley Song.” For his second encore, he invited his sister Martha back on stage with her one-year-old son, and Rufus’ nephew, Arcangelo. The word “cute” does not do this kid justice. Rufus sits at the piano and performs “Poses” while Martha stands by the piano adoring her brother, and Arcangelo simply seemed bewildered and calm. As Martha sang harmonies in the mic, little Arcangelo stretched his arms toward the speakers in front of the mic stand. He was reaching for the speakers where he could hear his mother’s voice. It was so sweet. Rufus said “yeah, we start ‘em early in the Wainwright/McGarrigle family.” Next, Rufus performed “The Walking Song,” written by his mother early in her relationship with Rufus and Martha’s father, Loudon. He reappeared for the final encore and said “we won’t leave you on a sad note.” And with that, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.”
I’ve seen Rufus Wainwright four times now, three times in the past year. Each time I see him I’m more in awe of his musical ability, his vocals, his prowess on the piano. But I’m most impressed with how centered he’s become. How central relationships with his family and his partner (recently engaged to Jorn Weisbrodt) are to him, and how he fosters those relationships through music. He offered a little insight when talking about his mother, Kate. He said that while he misses her as a mother and a friend, he missed her talent more than anything. It’s a touching reminder to me about how important family and friends are in life. Bravo, Lulu. Well played.