Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon
August 7, 2007
Apparently, being the offspring of famous people isn't the draw it once was. Last night's Rufus Wainwright-Sean Lennon concert was the most poorly attended show by major recording artists I've attended in recent memory. Although the main performers have a lot more going for them than famous bloodlines, the venue was only about one-quarter full -- a fact the Fillmore staff's decision to put tables and chairs on the main floor did nothing to disguise.
The turnout likely had a major influence on the brisk pace of the proceedings. Because a third act, A Fine Frenzy, was on the bill, which listed an uncommonly early 7 p.m. start time, I thought I'd be able to catch the lion's share of Lennon's set if I arrived shortly before 8 p.m. By then, however, Lennon was two and a half tunes from wrapping up -- and the intro to Wainwright's slot began at 8:30 p.m. It was as if the pair wanted to get through the gig as quickly and professionally as possible in the hope that the next one would attract an audience without quite so much elbow room. Nevertheless, their time onstage at the Fillmore was revealing, if only because it forced these children of privilege to deal with difficult circumstances in the full glare of stage lights.
During a Westword interview earlier this year, commemorated by this April 19 profile and a Q&A accessible at Backbeat Online, Lennon was guarded and a bit uncomfortable; he seemed to be girding himself against questions about his dad's murder that he wishes he'd never have to answer again. At the Fillmore, though, he was much more at ease, casually chatting between songs about a bee-shaped pin Wainwright had given him and joking that the way a man and woman in his supporting group shared a microphone was "very sexual." Unfortunately, the songs I caught were just as relaxed -- indeed, too much so. He delivered "On Again Off Again," from his worthy 2006 disc Friendly Fire, so casually that the lyrics gummed rather than bit. That was followed by "Would I Be the One," a reworked version of an old T. Rex ditty in which Lennon was called on to deliver an extended guitar solo. He hit all the notes without a problem, but his body language while fingering the strings displayed all the passion of an H&R Block employee totting up figures on the last tax return of the day.
Wainwright, who conducted a charming interview with Westword for this 2001 article, wasn't nearly as laconic. Following a fanfare played by his plus-size band, stocked with a three-man brass section that included a French horn, he strutted into view clad in a fetching peppermint-striped suit sans shirt and plenty of jewelry whose sparkliness matched up well with the overhead mirror ball employed during the opening number, the title track from his new disc, Release the Stars. As he sang, he used every theatrical move in his arsenal, even offering the occasional glimpse of jazz hands and spirit fingers. But rather than seeming corny or hoary, these gestures came across as both cheeky and sincere -- a tribute to show-biz tradition in all its foolish glory.
From there, Wainwright moved to the piano and played the Stars standout "Going to a Town," wringing every last drop of ennui from the line "I'm so tired of America" as he caressed the keys against the stage's backdrop: a giant flag with black and white stripes. Only afterward did he reveal that the intensity of his performance was partly inspired by his necklace, which was slowly sliding off throughout the song.
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The repair of the necklace's clasp, which was eventually mended by some black electrical tape, was soon transformed into a running gag. But another of Wainwright's chats with attendees, though equally funny, had more of an edge. He introduced "Rules and Regulations" as Stars' single, claiming that when such songs are played on the radio, so many people show up for concerts that they can't fit in the door. After a pause, he added, with divine self-deprecation, "Obviously, this song isn't getting played on the radio." As the audience laughed, he rushed to thank those who bothered to come, then urged them, "Tell a friend!"
Word of mouth can only do so much for music as idiosyncratic as Wainwright's. His intricate, sweepingly ornate compositions are more '40s Broadway than 21st century pop. Moreover, the repertoire he drew upon at the Fillmore contains plenty of other challenges, as demonstrated by the dark melodrama that's intrinsic to the Stars cut "Leaving For Paris No. 2" and the explicity gay themes of "The Art Teacher" (from 2004's Want Two), which may make certain narrowminded straights uncomfortable.
Still, the music world is better for having Wainwright in it, as he proved with yet another Stars offering, "Between My Legs." Prior to playing it, he mentioned a YouTube contest that let people at each tour stop create a clip of themselves declaiming the words in the song's spoken-word section, with the winner getting a chance to appear alongside Wainwright in their town. In another comic trope, he mock-bitched about how only about one person per city even bothered applying -- but he was extremely gracious to the Denver participant, bussing her on the cheek before her big moment, and repeating the smooch after she gave a winning performance.
So did Wainwright. Too bad so few people got a chance to see it. -- Michael Roberts