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An Evening with Rufus Wainwright and Kate & Anna McGarrigle - Royal Festival Hall on 24 May 2004

Guests: Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson and Martha Wainwright

As I kindly overlooked the misspelling of Rufus "Wainright’s" (sic) name on the ticket as I sought out my awful seat in the Royal Festival Hall, I noted that the concert was billed as ‘An Evening with Rufus Wainwright + Kate & Anna McGarrigle,’ which seemed to imply that it would be more of a group effort by this musical dynasty than I had been expecting. I had assumed Rufus’ mother and aunt, Canadian rootsy Appalachian-folk singers Kate & Anna McGarrigle, would probably open for him and then join him on stage as backing vocalists once or twice. Now I felt the evening would be much different, more of a family affair. Indeed, it was, more than I could have imagined.

My ruefully last-minute decision to see the son of Loudon Wainwright III who had earned enormous critical acclaim in his own right left me with a deeply distant view of the huge stage with no opportunity for decent photographs, but I was pleased to be seeing Rufus at all; he was a sensational talent. His 1998 debut album had wowed me with its gripping originality, and last year’s release, Want One, left me gobsmacked by his brilliance. Besides, I had seen his father in concert not long before, so it was time that I visited with the rest of the family.

Which is exactly what I did. The concert was not Rufus peddling his three albums, delivering catchy favourites with the occasional guest appearance by his mum. It was more like an invitation into their family home for a nourishing meal followed by delightful chat and entertainment by the fire in the living room. These world class performers did not hide their web of familial relationships from us, as we were chez them. The mums issued instructions kindly but sternly to their offspring, and the offspring sometimes retorted smartly in resentment of being told what to do, as kids do--but all in a loving way. They made no attempt to hide a lack of rehearsal in some instances, particularly when forced to meet the audience’s demands to carry on playing after they had exhausted their planned setlist, and no one minded. They were so delightful that I feel like I should send them a thank you note for having me.

Unlike some of the audience, I was luckily dutifully in my bad seat on time since I prefer to catch support acts as that is how I discover many of tomorrow’s stars and today’s private gems. I knew it would be a privilege to see the McGarrigle sisters, even though I must admit that I could not really stand the high, willowy, voices singing in unison that I had heard whenever I sampled their wares. The one song I remembered liking from 1999’s family effort The McGarrigle Hour was the first track, Schooldays, probably because it sang of being in Delaware when younger (as I was), featured Loudon Wainwright singing his own song with his kids, ex-wife and her sister, as well as Chaim Tannenbaum (who I’ve finally realised didn’t write The Chosen. I thought it was odd that he should turn to folk singing at the age of 75!). Plus it was one of the songs that thankfully was untouched by a banjo. Despite my memories of liking only that one song, when I look back at notes I made when I first played the album (okay, so I’ve revealed that I’m a scarier dweeby muso than Nick Hornby), I actually gave it a rare, almost perfect rating. I enjoyed the Rufus tracks on that, naturally, but for some reason I let dust hide the album for the next five years, and I tended to think of it as being full of high strangled harmonies that weren’t my taste at all. Perhaps the high rating I gave it reflected my respect for its fine workmanship, like admiring a late Picasso for his greatness but hating Cubism. Many others must have felt the same, judging by the constant flow of a surprising number of latecomers allowed entry only in between songs who obviously thought they’d skip the opening folk act and turn up later for Rufus. Well, they missed a great deal.

When the performers wandered on to the stage, the audience was a bit hesitant to react after cheering five minutes before when the lights were lowered as an androgynous high-haired person came on with a guitar—then placed it on a stand and left. But this time, two women who looked the right age to be McGarrigle mums came on with two young female backing vocalists who stood behind mikes on the right of the stage and a young man who took his place with a double bass behind the McGarrigles, who sat up front on the left--one behind a small portable keyboard and one with an acoustic guitar. The capacity audience (the hall holds almost 2,000 but feels like an intimate club) of mostly 30-somethings with long Rufus hair but responsible jobs and mortgages, as well as some much older people who looked like Loudon fans checking out his offspring, reacted enthusiastically when a skinny young man in tight dark trousers, sandals, a scarf around his neck, and a 70s-style shirt with big colourful vertical stripes joined them. As so often is the welcome style these days, the headliner had come on for the whole show. The McGarrigle/Wainwright party had begun.

Rufus, whose lustrous hair was fashionably shorter than expected and thankfully free of those awful rebellious sideburns, stepped up to the mike centre stage and announced like an artiste, ‘This is where I come from!’ We cheered, it was smooth, but then typical mother not letting her kids get away with any nonsense, Kate McGarrigle leaned into her mike and said, ‘Where?’ Canadian (-ish) Rufus, apparently clarifying that he didn’t mean he came from London, replied matter-of-factly, ‘The stage!’ Rufus’ more flamboyant cabaret techniques continued to be perhaps self-consciously buried by the presence of his mother on stage, who then did the Debrett’s bit with, ‘Thank you all for coming!’ before revealing her true feelings by muttering a bit breathlessly to herself, ‘Daunting!’

The next thing we heard was a voice emitting from young Rufus that reached straight for my soul. He is clearly a remarkable singer, which is expected as it is in his genes, but no spinning of his CDs would ever, ever prepare you for the achingly melancholic Godlike sound that he emits when singing live. Sitting on a high stool, he began with a song written by Auntie Anna that was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1974 album of the same name, Heart Like a Wheel. ‘Some say a heart is just like a wheel/When you bend it, you can’t mend it’ Rufus sang, melting the audience into entranced loyal silence. His voice faded away at times to allow the four women to harmonise, when he would turn towards his mother and aunt with his right hand over his forehead in a slightly stressed salute.

When Rufus’ sister Martha joined in, I recognised her by her voice. She contributed a significant and beautiful array of backing vocals to Boo Hewerdine’s first-class Thanksgiving album, which I continue to play in my mind when it’s not on the stereo. Bizarrely, before that album, I never thought Martha could sing (I must have forgotten her fine contribution to dad Loudon’s Grown Man album). I worry now that I gained that impression by her ‘interfering’ vocals on Rufus’ debut released a few months before Boo’s album, though I don’t hear it that way now. She merely adopted the style of her mother and aunt’s harmonising at the time, and I was not as mature in my tastes then, I guess. Martha proved at this concert, where everyone but the bassist was given a chance to shine in the spotlight, that her voice is outstanding, and it was a treat to hear her perform some solo material.

Beside Martha on stage was a shy girl with frizzier hair than the trick roadie from earlier; almost like a Janet Frame fright wig—how my hair looked after a misguided haircut decision as a child—that seemed to hide her whole self away. She stood awkwardly with a most insecure posture in ill-fitting clothes designed for comfortable food shopping rather than grabbing attention on stage. My comments are definitely not intended to criticise cruelly; I’m merely trying to convey the image of a girl who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else than pinned by her terror to that kind of exposure. She had absolutely no reason to feel that way; she shone with a magical voice that the best would envy. I hope she one day grows the confidence to match it, as she really needn’t fear the people who are looking back at her with adulation and awe.

The women took over the song and Rufus only occasionally contributed, but when he did, his voice soared throughout the hall as though it were the Hall’s pipe organ that was hidden behind the backdrop curtain. Still, he miraculously maintained the subtlety required not to drown out the soft harmonies of the women.

Our first exposure to what the evening held for us blew us all away and we delivered the loudest applause anyone could muster. During this conveyance of our suitable adulation, I noticed that Martha walked over to where Shy Girl stood and seemed to speak reassuringly to her whilst draping a comforting arm around her shoulder, which was touching--the experienced, confidence queen reeking of rebellion and attitude checking on this bundle of trepidation who seemed to wish she could perform from backstage. If the experienced Kate McGarrigle could admit that facing a hungry crowd of thousands was daunting, why shouldn’t a young girl feel the same?

Kate, the apparent self-appointed Master of Ceremonies, with a bright smile and less grey hair then the quiet Anna whose face was mostly covered by a thick silver fringe, led us towards the next song by William Blake—in fact the beautiful Blake poem Ah, Sunflower backed by a lovely, folky tune. Martha played acoustic guitar whilst Anna switched from keyboard to what I hoped was a mandolin rather than a banjo but I couldn’t hear a mandolin, just twangy sounding guitars, so…. The chap in a lounge suit who vaguely resembled Rufus played his double bass like a cello, and Shy Girl seemed to try to disappear whilst adding lovely vocals to the pool that sang Blake’s song of experience: ‘Ah, Sunflower! weary of time, Who countest the steps of the sun, Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveller's journey is done,’ and so on.   This powerful little poem gave beat poet Allen Ginsberg an epiphany at a low point that he had a calling to write poetry, the revelation involving a ‘universal consciousness’ and a theory that poetry was a means for altering the audience’s thought processes, much as this wonderful family’s music did for their audience this evening.

Interestingly, I believe the poem that follows ‘Ah, Sunflower!’ in Blake’s Songs of Experience is called ‘The Lily,’ and Shy Girl turned out also to be called Lily. In fact, though there was no notable interaction between the two all night since they were placed at either end of the stage, Lily Lanken is the daughter of Anna McGarrigle by Dane Lanken, another (absent) singer. Hence the sweet and marvellous voice booming out of this delicate flower.

After impressing us with their Blake ‘cover’, everyone left the stage but the mini-skirted Martha. ‘Hi, I’m Martha’ earned welcoming cheers as a spotlight fell on her while she began bashing away at a guitar, soon bashing away at all sorts of other things in a song full of bitterness and spite. At times, it sounded as though she weren’t even singing for a particular person who wronged her, just generally threatening anyone who might. Standing with her svelte legs almost pigeon-toed, she belted out a forceful and impressive bold song intensely delivered. Mostly singing harsh lyrics with a sweet but strong voice, the quieter moments of the song were a bit Dylanesque, which reminded me of her father, who had been lauded as the New Bob Dylan, or one of the many. When she finished the song with an endlessly repeated refrain of ‘Oh, you bloody mother f***ing a**hole’, which initially drew nervous titters from the audience but eventually undoubtedly had their feet tapping to its eminent catchiness, I felt her delivery of Bloody Motherf**king A**hole—believe it or not the title track of her last EP-- could only be described as Patty Griffin doing an impression of Bob Dylan singing Eminem.

As the audience recovered and Rufus returned to the stage, he brightly purred in a high, calm voice, ‘Okay! That was angry’, sounding like Dana Carvey’s Church Lady in his Saturday Night Live days addressing a group of pre-schoolers, which had us all in stitches. He added, ‘I think the last time we did this kind of show was for Grandma, right?’

That might have been a joke about his sister’s lyrics, but you could imagine this family, more than any other, whipping out the kids for performances at parties or when visiting their grandma. Kate and Anna’s late mother Gaby was herself a performer, and by all accounts a real character. As the full cast returned to the stage, it was Kate, I believe, who then decided to dedicate this night’s show to Gaby, and she pointed out which of the boxes Gaby would be sitting in if she were watching from the audience.

Next, Rufus, now at the grand piano and facing his sister, launched his faultless voice into the utterly gorgeous Poses, the title track of his second album. His voice rose and dipped almost like a soprano singing Verdi, easily filling the breadth of the hall. The end of the song seemed to be stream of consciousness mutterings, still amazingly appealing. Meanwhile, the usual chorus of female backing vocals was particularly glorious. Martha demonstrated her frequent stance of standing a few feet back from the mike stand and leaning towards it so she is nearly perpendicular to the floor, which inspires worry that she has a future career as a bell ringer at Notre Dame, but I suppose if that stance emits such a fantastic voice, it must be worth it.

The singing voice of Rufus, vastly superior in person than on recordings, leads one to believe that he will speak in a deep, macho voice. His speaking voice is quite the opposite. Indeed, this is not the sullen, serious soul in the photos on his albums. He’s fun, fragile, light-hearted and a bit camp, like a character from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I never expected that, although his songs do betray an emotional fragility and he sometimes sings like a drunken diva, but the rest was a delightful insight into a charming and dynamic personality.

As the huge cheers for the perfect performance of Poses slowly died down, Rufus said that he’d started with that song so that, if he messed up on the one he was about to do, we would not think badly of him. He announced that he was going to play a song he had recently written called Hometown Waltz, which he had sung at Dingwalls. Some people applauded, and he said, ‘you were all there, right?’ His gentle smile let on that he would forgive those of us who missed his gig on 6 May, which must have been at least 1500 of us given that the Camden club formerly known as Dingwalls (now Lock 17 to its owners at least) only holds about 500 people on a good night.

Rufus turned to his sister, who had picked up what looked like a fiddle, and asked if she was going to play the violin. Through gritted teeth, she replied, ‘I don’t play the violin, as I was explaining to you earlier.’ Their mother was on the banjo (oh dear) and her sister on the accordion, Lily was on the recorder—or possibly a tin whistle. I half expected the bass player to pick up a washboard, but instead he, somewhat out of step with the scene, switched to electric bass guitar. With Rufus playing a slow and pretty part on the piano that sounded almost classical, the troupe created a full, folky sound that warmed the Hall until the banjo took over. The lyrics Rufus sang spoke of travelling the world to find answers, but also mentioned Ontario and hearing one’s motherland. Perhaps when his Want Two EP is available online, I’ll find it’s Waiting for a Dream, but I have no idea. In any case, the audience truly loved this performance and let it be known.  [It wasn't Waiting for a Dream. It was Hometown Waltz.]

Rufus then seemed to mutter something about embarrassment before turning to his mother and saying, ‘tell us about this song, ma’. His mother dutifully commented that the song was her most impressive, and she took a seat at the piano to play it as Rufus moved to the tall stool in the front, centre of the stage. Everyone provided subtle harmonies to Kate’s lead, with Martha primarily contributing backing vocals, and Anna remained on the accordion whilst the bassist switched back to double bass. They performed the dark and moody I Eat Dinner (When the Hunger’s Gone), describing being a greying single parent eating dinner at the kitchen table with her 13-year-old daughter—although after singing the line referring to the daughter, Kate hurriedly added ‘the other daughter’. ‘What other daughter?’ Rufus demanded. It’s just as well she wasn’t singing her song Matapedia, as the lyric ‘I'm the daughter of Kate / My name is Martha, who are you?’ would have been even trickier to disguise.

This song spoke of ‘No more candlelight / No more romance / No more small talk’. Rufus, who rocked from side to side on the stool, was barely audible, which somehow seemed admirable in that he clearly knew how and when to take a back seat and had no prima donna tendencies, although I doubt any of us would have minded if his voice was underscoring everyone else’s at all times. At one point, Rufus seemed to get carried away with the music and, like a little boy who thinks no one is watching, he faded into his own world where he was a conductor, and he stretched out his right arm as though cueing his mother and aunt. The whole presentation was again a marvellous family affair that was hugely appreciated by the audience.

It was Kate, I believe, rather than Lily’s mother Anna, who introduced the next number by saying, ‘And now Lily, the youngest grand-daughter, will sing Gaby’s big song.’ They joked about Gaby’s famous blue gown (versus raincoat, huh?), and Kate, now on the piano, referred to a fairly stained blue robe that would get Gaby singing this song after a few Gin & Tonics, and the rest of the family laughed fondly at a memory we could not share. Shy Lily half reluctantly stepped up to her mike to sing Alice Blue Gown as Rufus started to leave the stage, but Martha stopped him, so he just sat on the stool with his legs crossed during the number, contributing nothing until he joined in the remarkable harmonies at the bridge of the song. His ability to blend beautifully into the vocals of his family was fascinating; his voice in this mode was completely different from the soaring cabaret tenor that featured on his own songs. Martha remained standing by Lily, perhaps in her role as security blanket. Lily, as you would expect given her pedigree, had a marvellous voice, terribly sweet and gentle but lovely enough to dispel any shyness she felt entitled to have. The song was a bit twee, like a nursery rhyme that Bette Davis might sing as her creepy elderly character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But it clearly was a tribute to their deceased grandmother and surely emerged from an era long even before her time, so one could not expect Hendrix guitars and witty sophistication.

At the end, dear Lily bowed quickly and fled—only to bump into her cousin Martha, who got in her way to give her half a reassuring hug. Most of the performers left the stage at this point to cheers, but Martha remained, with her mother on the piano. Kate explained that they were going to do another song but they’d had no time to rehearse. She introduced the song, which I believe was Dis, Quand Reviendras-Tu?, as being from Les Boîtes à Chansons de Barbara and added that she was used to doing this in her living room. Being a typical daughter, Martha wouldn’t let that go and demanded a cold, ‘What??’ Kate shot her an explanatory ‘playing the piano’, which she did as Martha, reading from a lyric sheet, moved into a woeful French song delivered with a truly powerful voice like Edith Piaf on Strepsils in a West End musical. Despite her visual aid and her mother’s apologies, Martha sounded as though she was well rehearsed. I felt rather proud of the audience for sitting patiently through a song like this at what they must have expected to be a Rufus concert, with him now nowhere in sight. But I believe we were all solidly rewarded; hearing any Wainwright sing is always a privilege, in my experience. Indeed, Martha received substantial cheers when she finished, as the doors opened to another surprising number of latecomers who foolishly must have thought the headliner wouldn’t be on stage until much later, which they might have felt was confirmed upon entering and seeing someone other than Rufus performing.

Martha then employed her stunning legs to take her off the stage and was replaced by brother Rufus, who began to reminisce about visiting London when he was younger. ‘When I was here,’ he said, ‘I saw Annie with my dad. It was great. I told my mother when I got home, and she said, "You know, sometimes, Rufus, they let little boys play Annie."’ The anecdote and direct hit on the issue of his homosexuality earned laughter in the audience as Rufus’ mum stated in a tired manner that suggested she regularly defended herself on this one, ‘I really don’t remember that.’ Rufus decided to continue on that track as it so delighted the audience, adding ‘And then you got me those paper dolls to cut out….’ Again on the defensive, Kate asserted, ‘You wanted to play with those!’

Rufus turned to the audience and said, ‘Needless to say, I used to have to sing this at parties all the time.’ With that, his mother launched on the piano into the familiar introduction to Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which the audience initially greeted with a bit of a moan full of dread. However, once Rufus applied to this song made famous by one of his idols (how clichéd is his love for Judy Garland? Still, it explains much of his booming cabaret style of singing) his enormous talent of interpretation, hitting each line with a new passion and booming out the higher notes with such astonishing power that they almost made ever ear in the hall ache, we were sold. Gripping the mike stand with his right hand, Rufus formed a fist with his left, but any threatening look he might have created was somewhat distilled by the fuschia pink lighting during this song. Although the dear late Eva Cassidy recorded a tremendous interpretation of this tired old overdone classic, I have to say little else could match Rufus’ performance. When he came to sing the last "why oh why can’t I?", his voice leapt to even greater heights as he chose to reach a note at least half an octave higher than anyone has ever sung in that final line and hit it with perfection. Wow. He certainly earned the absolutely gushing screams—not cheers, but screams—delivered by the audience in response.

He then delighted us by saying that two special guests would join them that night, and the first was Mrs Linda Thompson, ‘who is from a great singing family as well’. Although I have long been a fan of her ex-husband Richard, I have not had a chance to delve into the highly respected catalogue of Linda, whose recent comeback has earned critical acclaim, so I was thrilled with the opportunity of seeing her. Amongst the myriad talents contributing to her first album in 17 years were her son Teddy and a contemporary of his called Rufus Wainwright. Linda came on stage with short hair, wearing a loose dark suit and shirt, and took a seat up front with a lyric sheet in her hand. She and Rufus chatted like old friends and he ensured she was comfortable as Kate explained to us that they’d just returned from a Leonard Cohen extravaganza in Brighton (Hall Willner’s Came So Far for Beauty: An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs), performing two nights in a row, so they thought, why not three?

Kate said the experience of singing this particular song again had reminded her and Anna of performing in coffee-houses when they were young. They only knew three chords and this song had six chords. Anna piped in with, ‘Damn Leonard Cohen!’ Kate explained their fingers were not big enough then to play his music. Clearly their fingers were bigger now, as the McGarrigle sisters began playing guitar, and Linda began singing Cohen’s Seems So Long Ago, Nancy, with a powerful, deep, sultry voice that sounded pure yet fragile and wounded, like Marianne Faithfull without the scratchy throat. Kate took a verse and appeared to flub the lyrics at one stage, and then Anna took the third verse. Meanwhile, Linda sat looking restless on her seat. Together, they had managed to convey a futuristic feel of depth and passion, given an added Cohen feel when Linda sang again joined by the willowy harmonies of the sisters. The unusual delivery was quite impressive, and as Kate and Linda hugged as Linda left the stage, the audience erupted in cheers.

Although Rufus was a big Cohen fan—having been introduced to his music by Martha—and he had also participated in the recent tribute event, he had removed himself from the stage during the last number and only now returned. He wasted no time in introducing the next special guest, Linda’s son with Richard Thompson: Teddy Thompson.

As Teddy came on, only Rufus and his sister Martha remained on stage, and Teddy took his place to their left as Rufus did a bit of stage managing, saying that Teddy was ‘usually over here when he does it’. Teddy switched places with Martha as ordered, becoming the filling of the Wainwright sandwich. ‘It’s a club show,’ Rufus said by way of explanation at the lack of smooth transitions, turning to us then to add, ‘But we’re not in a club,’ in case we were going to point that out to him ourselves.

So three offspring of two sets of famous singing parents performed for us, Teddy in the middle on guitar, joining Martha on backing vocals to Rufus’ lead masterful vocals delivering his father’s song, One Man Guy, which Rufus had covered on his Poses album. Beginning with the apt words, ‘People will know when they see this show the kind of guy I am’ and later adding, ‘People depend on family and friend’, Loudon’s words sung by his son suited the circumstances perfectly. Teddy Thompson sang the second verse with a bit of a raunchy, Americana sound that contrasted the sweet harmonies of Martha, and the blend of all three powerful inherited voices on the chorus was spine-chilling. The very sight of these three second generation talents together was more than I could bear not to record, so I tried to reach for my camera in my briefcase, regardless of the Photography Gestapo nearby. Rather than them, fate prevented me from snapping the scene, as my briefcase had somehow locked, and there’s little chance of finding the right numbers on a combination lock in total darkness, so I missed out. But at least the memory of the graceful choir of voices will stick with me.

When they finished and the audience roared, all of the Wainwright/McGarrigles returned with the bassist as Teddy left the stage. I hoped weakly that he would join his mother for an all-star finale later, but that was the only dream not to be realised tonight.

Rufus and his sister grabbed a guitar each whilst their mum picked up a banjo, the bassist held the huge double bass and Lily stood by to add vocals. I believe Anna also played acoustic guitar on this one. Rufus announced that they were going to attempt an old country song, ‘St James’ Hospital—or is it Infirmary?’ The old song St James’ Infirmary generally has roots are more in blues and folk than country and has been recorded by all types--Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Harry Connick, Jr, Janis Joplin and even the White Stripes, and there are slightly different versions. Usually, it is a song about the male ‘narrator’ visiting this infirmary—which legend has it was a grand hotel in New Orleans used as a hospital in the Civil War but was more likely to be a hospital in Dublin or London—to see the corpse of his lover stretched out on a slab, selfishly boasting ‘She ain’t never gonna find another man like me’ and, in some versions, an added verse where he thinks about his own funeral arrangements. That oddity is thought to be because the song is apparently part of a cycle of ballads that explain that his love has died of venereal disease.

That is the only thing the traditional song had in common with the version that the Wainwright brigade played of St James’ Hospital, which really was more of a country trail song, with a bit of a train chorus (you know, ‘hooo-hooo!’), derived from the original 19th  century folk song that seems to pre-date the more popular version. The lyrics of the traditional song refer to meeting up with an ill friend wrapped in flannel near St James’ Hospital who knows he has been infected by a woman and speaks of his funeral arrangements, asking for ‘six young soldiers to carry my coffin, six young girls to sing me a song.’ Perhaps confirming the oft told link between traditional Irish music and the mountain music of America, the McGarrigles’ version spoke of passing St James’ Hospital and spying a cowboy who was wrapped up in linen on a warm day because he was dying, confessing his sins with women and saying, ‘Get me six pretty maidens to come and carry my coffin / Six pretty maidens to come and sing me a song.’ That’s a kinder compromise in the McGarrigle arrangement, found on their Heartbeats Accelerating album, than the one sometimes heard in country arrangements: ‘I want sixteen young gamblers, papa, to carry my coffin / I want sixteen young whore gals for to sing me my song.’

The performance was almost too twangy for my liking, particularly when Kate and Martha sang the second verse, but frankly, anything that contains Rufus’ emotive, towering, astonishingly alive voice hitting lofty notes the way this did throughout has my ear whenever it wants it, even if it means delivering it in Van Gogh style. Before they got to that point, though, Kate stopped the others after a few notes when they first started and gave firm instructions from a professional musician to her kin, not just correcting what chords they should be playing, but reminding them of their music theory, telling them to think of the x-axis. That made no sense to me since they weren’t drawing graphs, but then that’s why I pay to see people play instruments rather than the other way around. Then at the end of the song, when everyone else stopped, Martha seemed ready to carry on with another verse but halted just in time.

Once again, this song presented examples of where the family seemed to forget that they weren’t jamming at home but that a paying audience was watching them prompt and bicker and start over. However, rather than demand our money back for the lack of perfection and polish we witnessed from time to time, I think we all would have almost paid extra for the privilege of being part of this easygoing family reunion. Despite the slightly hodge-podge performance being a thousand times better than anything the Partridge Family ever did, Rufus muttered about making mistakes and needing to practice more and added by way of explanation, ‘We’re from Canada,’ the way everyone in Fawlty Towers would explain away Manuel’s behaviour with, ‘He’s from Barcelona.’ Carrying on with the theme of Canadian mistakes, Rufus added, ‘Oh, sh*t, eh?’ before his mother laid on a thick Canadian accent to say, ‘Thank God I’m from Canada!’ The big cheers that followed indicated what percentage of the audience was also from maple leaf country. Kate added that she was pleased to see that a bit of their culture had hit these shores in the form of the television show Bodies, a sardonic hospital drama now being shown on BBC3.

Rufus put down his guitar and seemed to mumble something about singing in a Scottish accent as his mother moved to the piano and his aunt picked up the accordion. The bassist remained on double bass and Martha still clung to her acoustic guitar, the sound of which I could never make out amongst all the other masterfully played instruments, but the competition was strong. Martha began singing ‘These are not my people, I should never have come here’ with a startling, mournful beauty. Naturally, these were her people, and her words made me think of her father Loudon’s splendid song, A Father and a Son, about his fiery relationship with Rufus following in the footsteps of his fights with his own dad, where he nobly refers to his ex-in-laws: ‘Now, your mother's family, you know them: Each and every one a gem.’ A true description, I figured, based on what I saw tonight—and don’t all these people write a lot of songs about their intricate web of relationships!

Frankly, the song Martha was now singing provided relief from her sometimes bitter hate and pain-fuelled bile-spitting words that were clearly the result of a terrible break-up that turned her wild with rage, at least on paper. Here, her vocals still burst out with an angry strength like the under-appreciated Martina Sorbera, although her increasingly sultry style resembled Pia Zadora as she sang of her last chance to ‘run, run, run—don’t look back.’ As her shy cousin harmonised wonderfully with Martha’s truly outstanding voice that was unleashed here with the unchecked, flinging power of Björk, Martha began kicking her left leg in a twisted backward movement at the knee, proving that she was definitely Loudon’s daughter. Though it is safe to say that Loudon’s wild kicks look a bit mad, it seems that if you have great legs in a mini-skirt, the kicks are a bit more pleasantly diverting to most onlookers, be they filled with envy or lust.

Rufus, his only instrument on this number being his incomparable voice and his ‘thigh drums,’ which he beat with an unstoppable rhythm, reduced his contribution to barely a hum, reinforcing the message that this show was a joint effort where Rufus never sought to be the centre of attention. The subtle harmonies of all the related voices sounded like stunning strings in a chamber orchestra. Martha shone herself when she hit a particularly high note and held it for about three days. Of her skills of songwriting, guitar playing, and singing, Martha truly excels at singing, and her voice and technique is greatly improved since I first heard her on her brother’s debut album. Since this song ended with the line, ‘from factory to factory,’ I will guess this is her song called Factory from her EP of the same name.

Everyone but Rufus left the stage as we gave the family and bassist due applause for their performance of his sister’s song, and Rufus sat alone at the piano. Considering that this instrument was the one, other than his voice, through which he expresses himself so freely, it was perhaps surprising that he did not play it more. ‘This is from the new record, Want One’ he announced to cheers, and sang the fantastic brief bit of beauty, Pretty Things. He held out the last line, ‘And don’t say you don’t notice them’ for an impressive age, making the lovely song particularly faintworthy for us privileged folk hearing him sing it live. Fortunately, we all liked pretty things, too, and couldn’t possibly claim not to notice the many with which we had been provided this evening. This one, in particular, was a treat in its simplicity amongst an evening of complicated arrangements and emotions.

Without pausing to tolerate our gratified applause, Rufus sped up the proceedings by delving into one of the brightest songs from his debut album, Beauty Mark. Obviously yet another family affair put to music, this time the song is directed at his mother, who must have grown up with the things he sings about lacking but not minding lacking: a beauty mark, radio show, fear of nuns, home-made curtains. He namechecks another of the Divas he loves, Maria Callas, certainly another influence on this ‘popera’ star, as he’s been rightfully called thanks to his soaring tenor and the operettas of his songs, so often sharing heartfelt tragedy. In composing the song, Rufus apparently pulled out all the stops, both lyrically and tunefully, to lure his mother into finally liking one of his songs. Surely no one could resist it. Perhaps she is also a John Martyn song, because Rufus slurred his words so strongly that I would have thought he had either downed a bottle of Scotch or suffered a stroke after the last song if there had been time. Or perhaps he now lacked respect for this tune compared to his later work and felt it should be treated like a novelty doled out as quickly and carelessly as possible. Mind you, if that breathtaking output is the result of carelessness, Rufus will surely one day rule the world.

He did give the tune a bit of attention after the slow part in the middle, pausing to take a deep, hugely exaggerated gasping breath before proceeding. Perhaps he worried we would detract points from his score if we didn’t understand, so he stopped briefly to say ‘that was a joke’ before plunging back into the race of piano and voice. (It’s true to say that a regular sucking sound was audible after many of Rufus’ lines all night, but it was never like a gasp for breath and seemed to add to his passionate delivery rather than detract from it.) Just after the humorous line, ‘I may not be so manly’, he ended the song by holding out ‘Beauty’ for seemingly several years, then stopping abruptly before adding a quick little closing flourish on the piano, reminiscent of a Tom Lehrer rag.

Regardless of what he wanted from the song, many tapping foots showed the whole audience clearly delighted in the magnificent piano playing that somehow combined the sound of a beer room or music hall player with a bit of classical charm. I have heard many amazing pianists in my time, but Rufus plays without a thought, as though the piano keys popped out with him when he was born, mere extensions to his fingers. As the crowd roared, having been treated to two samples of what they all expected to see when they booked their tickets, Rufus left the stage and the women and the bassist returned.

Rufus’ mother, who I guess must have a beauty mark that could not be seen from so far away, took a seat, picked up an acoustic guitar and began coaching the others again, despite admitting that she wasn’t too sure about a few things. She openly called out the chords to her daughter across the stage, even giving her advice about how to wing it if she wasn’t sure of what to play. Kate then turned to us and explained, ‘We’ve literally had no time to rehearse. Obviously.’ An interesting way to introduce a song to an audience! She then asked the sound mixer to turn up the volume of her guitar, perhaps assuming that hers would be the only one playing the right notes, and when nothing happened and she pictured the sound mixer frantically looking at all the controls to several different microphones, she tried to assist by saying sharply, ‘Kate’s guitar. Bring it up.’

Her sister Anna was sitting at the piano now and began singing the song all three McGarrigle sisters (including the absent Jane) wrote, Love Is. ‘Love is the morning star,’ Anna sang poetically, after citing another definition of love being a steel guitar, with which I’m afraid I must disagree most strongly. Fortunately, no one was playing one tonight so I kept my dinner down. Anna had a sweet little girl voice, much like her daughter Lily, who was adding equally darling backing vocals. Martha, as you may have guessed by my report of her mother’s instructions, was struggling with an acoustic guitar, her head bent a bit as she focused incessantly on her playing. When Anna and Lily reached the refrain of, ‘Love is the pleasures untold / And for some love is still a band of gold’, Kate turned it into a wistful three-part harmony. Dear Lily then took the final verse on her own, revealing a powerful voice despite her extremely clear reluctance to take centre stage. One could almost hear her shaking but her delivery was immaculate. It’s in her blood.

By the end of the song, poor Martha was completely doubled over the guitar as if trying to work out a combination lock in the darkness (say, of a briefcase). Her guitar playing sucked up all her concentration during the song so she offered no vocals until the very end. This arrangement with all the women singing was dripping with sweet, willowy sentiments normally reserved for Dido fans, but I had to admit it was terribly impressive. I would not rush out and buy that album but the live performance was positively engaging and pleased the hall full of Rufus fans.

Rufus now returned and sat on the stool up front. His mother remained on the guitar, and I believe Martha decided to give herself a break from her instrument, but remained standing by her mike. Rufus told us that the next song was one of his mother’s greatest songs ever. Arguing a bit as she sipped some water, his mother proceeded to talk about the two producers of the sisters’ debut album: Greg Prestopino and Joe Boyd. One of them at the time apparently made up some alternative lyrics to the song in question, (Talk to Me of) Mendocino, replacing the lines ‘Talk to me of Mendocino / Closing my eyes I hear the sea’ with ‘Talk to me, oh, Presopino / Closing my eyes, I hear Joe Boyd.’ I might have heard that wrong, we all might have, but we politely giggled a bit, puzzled. Kate did not quote the true lyric of the song when telling the anecdote, so those who did not know the lyrics, ie most people present, would not have understood the significance of the producer version. Rufus jumped in to save things with a peppy voice, explaining, ‘It’s a club show!’ Perhaps feeling that we were not sold on that, he added a bit less confidently, ‘Well, it’s a rave then’—if I heard correctly.

Moving on to performing the song itself, Kate began gently singing in a deliberate shaky style over her guitar about leaving New York where she came of age and found the blues (in the emotional sense rather than musically, I gather). Again, we witnessed (aurally) more exquisite three-part harmonies by the songwriter and her children on a slow, mournful road song. It somehow reminded me of my fellow campers’ gentle harmonies around the campfire decades ago—just as relaxed, but the camp version was naturally inferior. When the audience heard Kate sing the refrain, the earlier joke of the altered lyrics perhaps made sense at last, but hey, it was an in-joke. And a club show, eh?

Martha continued singing in that painful-looking perpendicular style that must keep some chiropractor in business, while her brother sang subtly from his stool, adding just the right amount of his glorious gentle braying. The performance was another dazzling accomplishment, but then I suppose they’d been rehearsing that one for 30 years. The audience gave such cheery applause, you would have thought it had been pent up inside them for 30 years.

After that family effort, everyone left Rufus again to get on with ‘his’ concert. Alone on stage, he sat behind the piano and, without any introduction or jokes, launched into another song about a parent: Dinner at Eight. The last one he performed was about his mother, a rather fond song he wrote in hopes that she would like it. This one was about his father and began, ‘No matter how strong / I’m going to take you down with one little stone / I’m going to break you down and see what you’re worth / What you’re really worth to me.’ Later, he sings so intensely, ‘Somewhere near the end of our lives / But ‘til then, no, Daddy, don’t be surprised / If I want to see the tears in your eyes’. So a little bit of a different take on things, huh? Though much of it seemed to stem from that age old case of a child feeling permanently rejected by the parent who moved out after his parents’ divorce. The reference to magazines in the song, though, suggests that their lifelong argument renewed itself after press reports relating to Rufus’ career and perhaps comments he had made about his father in his rebellious stage that Loudon can’t have welcomed. One gets the impression from the intense lyrics that the song started out being a vicious storm of vengeance but turned into a little boy crying out in pain and wanting to be loved and accepted by the person he’s spitting at. Families, eh? Can’t live with ‘em….

Despite the piano’s gentle, classical feel again, Rufus’ nasal voice was powerful and full of bitter intent, though I like to think that’s the theatrics instilled into his show rather than feeling that still exists. Anyway, if he’s like me, you pour out your heart into a song to purge your soul of devils. Then the evil and hatred or despair you feel transfers to the paper so that you can carry on being a decent, happier human being. And hey, he had to get back at Loudon for writing Rufus is a Tit Man about his baby. Rufus can’t have enjoyed having that shouted at him by the kids in the schoolyard.

Nevertheless, the live performance lacked the strings to soften the blow or brass to make this more like an impersonal song from some musical that appeared on the album, and Rufus’ pounding piano drove home the meaning of the song. He sang it so sadly, like something Roberta Flack would sing in the 70s to make you tear apart your heart. Unusually, he kept his eyes closed for most of the delivery, stretching his neck towards the ceiling in between notes. I know I have already mentioned his ability to hold out notes for world record lengths, but when he sang the line ‘So put up your fists and I’ll put up mine’, he held onto the word ‘fists’ for so long that I decided there must be some sort of sorcery going on before us. It was a club show, after all.

This sublime paragon of powerful emotion had us all paralysed, and I imagine every one of us felt quite protective of young Rufus at that moment. As we roared with approval when he finished, it sounded like someone shouted above us, ‘Idiot!’ I hope Rufus was able to make out that the shouter actually said: ‘Genius!’ True, there can be no other explanation for having the brilliance to conceive such artful passion (or passionate art), to transcribe that emotive vision in perfectly suited lyrics and a lustrous tune to convey the song with such transcendent musical and vocal skills. Rufus had a head start with those genes but a head start doesn’t automatically put you over the finish line first.

As we all tried to catch our breath and recover from that magic, the other performers returned to the stage. Master of Ceremonies Kate said that they’d reached that spot in the evening when they introduced the people on the stage, and Kate introduced her niece Lily. Rufus introduced the only non-family member, bass player Jeff Hill, who not only played on Rufus’ last album but also with many other fine talents, including the two Thompsons we’d seen tonight, Cry Cry Cry--the fabulous project of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, as well as the stupendous David Mead. Hill’s introduction—which failed to mention those credentials--rightfully drew enough applause based on tonight’s importance for him to feel quite proud for some days yet.

Rufus then introduced ‘the fantastic Martha Wainwright’ who shed her cocky persona for a moment to curtsy coyly to the audience, and then he introduced his Aunt Anna, who was now on guitar, and his mum Kate. Feeling compelled to introduce everyone on stage, Rufus added with a smile, ‘and Rufus Wainwright!’ Martha stepped up to a mike to add ‘And Linda and Teddy Thompson’, although sadly they did not rejoin the group.

Moving on to the next song, Rufus turned to his sister and asked which of them would be starting. Martha, holding an acoustic guitar, answered that everybody would start the song together before realising that she was wrong and indicating that Lily would start singing, which she duly did. Thank goodness their vocals and material are so strong, otherwise their lack of rehearsal and constant confusion would be frustrating rather than endearing. After a few lines from Lily, all of the singers joined in on the chorus in multi-layered harmonies that took me back a few decades, revealing the song to be Green Green Rocky Road. Rufus swayed his arms from side to side as he sang whilst sitting on his stool, before Kate, playing acoustic guitar, took the second verse. No one came in on the third verse until Anna eventually picked it up when prompted by her sister. Martha sang the verse of the children’s song that speaks of ‘Hooka tooka soda cracker / Does your mama chew tobacco’. Someone’s guitar at one point seemed to be much slower than everyone else, but soon enough the magic of Rufus took over as his ineffable voice joined in, changing the style of the song from its slightly twee folkiness. Still, it was all rather uplifting. Hill, now on electric bass, was the only one who didn’t take a verse. He had a microphone all night but I never saw him use it; perhaps he felt there was no need as there were plenty of majestic voices on stage already. At one point, the clan pretended to stop but then kick-started the song, and when they did finish with a final burst of perfect harmony and the audience applauded, Rufus laughed and delightfully announced the false ending as ‘A little trick!’

Then they all came to the front of the stage and stood in a line—sadly not to do a Rocket kickline, but to take a bow and leave us after playing for almost two hours. Fortunately, they returned to the stage for an encore almost immediately. So quickly, it seemed, that they had not had time to discuss what they might perform next. Kate asked them all what they could do, and the audience called out lots of requests until one firm and final voice shouted out ‘Anything!’ which would surely be the choice of most of us. Kate promised, ‘well, we’ll definitely do something!’ Seated at the piano, she curiously suggested, ‘How ‘bout a song that everybody knows?’ I’m sure we all agreed it would be a good idea if they all knew what they would be playing. Martha, on acoustic guitar, began singing then, revealing their feigned loss for ideas for the staged deception it was. No matter, Martha delighted us with a booming rendition of her Don’t Forget, another post-break-up song with fairly naïve lyrics, but not as vicious as before. This song has the line ‘Don’t forget that I will always love you’ with the apparent hope that their paths might cross again years into the future, and her family joined in on that line with more skilful harmonies. Hill accompanied her on double bass as her aunt joined her on guitar and her mother played piano. Lily added backing vocals to the fairly country sound of the song.

Rufus was perched on the centre stool, swaying like a child lost in the music again, but did not sing until the second verse, when he took over lead vocals, starting spectacularly high and then scaling down to a lower octave with admirable skill. He sang gently and sweetly like his mother. Next, his Aunt Anna joined in, more chatting than singing, almost as though she had forgotten her line and then remembered to speak it just in time. Complete with McGarrigle clan harmonies, the song impressed the audience.

The performers all rose when they finished, and Rufus orchestrated them, chatting off-mike to his aunt, then his mother and seemed to talk them out of leaving the stage again (I knew I liked him). Apparently unhappy with what they’d decided to play, Martha protested that they hadn’t even had time to run through that one. Kate ordered everyone back to their places and suggested, ‘let’s kind of make some nice noises.’ She hit a note on the piano, before remarking incredulously, ‘I’ve never played this!’ Rufus said he knew that she hadn’t, and Kate asked whether she should give him an introduction on the piano. She played a single note again, then said, ‘That’s it, that’s the intro!’

Rufus decided to count himself in and then began singing an initially a cappella spellbindingly moving version of Goodnight Sweetheart, quite slow and rich with that phenomenal voice. He stretched his arms out to his sides, rocking side to side on his stool as though moved by the music. Fairly soon, he forgot the lyrics to the old classic and so his mother shouted lyric prompts out to him like Rose shouting commands to Baby June in Gypsy. All of the women on stage stood by their microphones but Rufus was in charge of this number, which you would think was clearly closing the show as it had closed the album The McGarrigle Hour. In those liner notes, McGarrigle sister Jane wrote, "And finally Rufus, the eternal romantic, takes us back in time…to bring The McGarrigle Hour to a close….a family united by blood, by music created and exchanged, and by love and respect for each other’s work." Rather fitting. On the album, Rufus’ sister, aunt and mother join in on vocals and harmonise to a rather grating degree, sounding like the Andrews Sisters on Valium. I was enormously thankful that the live version sounded nothing like that, and the whole audience was thrilled with the performance.

‘What would Gaby say!’ Kate boasted. The artists then stood, blew a kiss to us and left. We cheered ecstatically and tried to encourage them to return to the stage, but deep down in our hearts, we figured they’d run out of material.

But that would be ridiculous, when you consider the vast catalogues amongst them. We had seen five separate recording acts in one night. The main one for us, Rufus, strolled back on stage explaining that he didn’t really know what he was doing, and yet began playing piano right away. When the audience heard the first line of ‘I don’t want to hold you and feel so helpless,’ they roared with approval, recognising the first song that most people would have heard by him, the opening track on his debut album: Foolish Love. Some people in the audience were standing in the exits, conscious that they needed to get away, but still drawn into the room by the dramatic, slow introduction to the song before it burst into that upbeat cabaret and catchy style for which the man is so noted. Rather than performing that player-piano sound, Rufus stuck to something quieter with a bit of a ragtime infusion. As usual, his sensational voice wowed us all, and he pounded the piano like Wagner, playing that up as though her were a Vegas showman before finishing with a nostalgic impishness. The audience roared as he began to walk off stage.

Fortunately, rather than leave us, Rufus stood on the edge of the stage and beckoned to the others, and all of the women returned—bassist Hill did not. Rufus moved to the centre microphone and addressed us. ‘You’ve been wonderful; I mean it from the bottom of my heart.’ Someone in their excitement shouted out, ‘Ruuuufffuuuuss!’ like a football chant. Perhaps not used to them, Rufus turned in the direction of the shouter and answered, ‘What?’ Requests rang through the air, particularly for Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, and I heard one request for Gay Messiah, a controversial protest song from his forthcoming EP that has prompted some members of the audience to walk out when he has played it in presumably less open minded places. ‘Oh, that’s not a family song,’ Rufus explained light-heartedly. His mother leaned into the mike and firmly confirmed, very mother-of-factly, ‘He won’t be playing Messiah tonight! This is a family show.’

Instead, they all sang a cappella—until Anna added an extremely delicate and almost unnoticeable (yes, it’s true! It can happen!) button accordion part, probably just to keep them in key, though I doubted that was necessary. The apparent family song they performed was one of Kate’s contributions to the Songs of the Civil War compilation, called Hard Times Come Again No More. Although it was her song, Kate did not sing as much as watch her sister play accordion. Rufus fell back into his dramatic arm movements—not quite the stuff of Joe Cocker, and more adorable than just odd. The marvellous arrangement of the harmonies on this song set off our mental ‘wow’ alarms again as it built up to a Niagara Falls of voices. At the end, Rufus beamed a giant smile at us before breaking many hearts by leaving the stage with his family. The lights came up then at 9.45pm, confirming that that was our lot.

The show was certainly nothing that I expected. Rufus has such a powerful voice and a sullen look on the albums, I expected someone quite different from the sweet, vulnerable and endearing chap who spoke in a gentle, sometimes camp young voice. I almost thought of him now as cuddly like Rupert the Bear—or Rufus the Bear.

Also, anyone who had come to hear Rufus’ bold, lavish orchestrations with power-piano and that exceptionally astounding, busy brass as heard on his latest album might well have stormed out of the Hall when presented instead with a living version of folkier, sleepier The McGarrigle Hour. Rufus played few of his own songs, not even the utterly awesome 14th Street, so many people could have complained. However, it seemed that everyone present—including celebrities who were apparently spotted in the audience such as Neil Tennant, Paul Gambaccini and Frank Skinner--appreciated marvellous music in any form, even when it was like watching your neighbours jamming unrehearsed in their front room—well, not ordinary neighbours, obviously. All in all, the night was a rewarding experience I am thrilled I did not miss.

Copyright © 2004 by TC. All rights reserved.

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