Rufus Wainwright is proof that talent transcends sociopolitical boundaries. Twenty years ago, it would have been rare for an openly gay musician or entertainer to fill a concert hall; it would have been unheard of for a large portion of that entertainer’s audience to be teenage girls and successful, over-30 yuppie couples who have children. But those are some the people who flocked to the Michigan Theater in droves on Sunday night to see the classically trained singer/songwriter perform a rare solo show without the backing band that usually accompanies him on tour.
The evening’s only shortfall was the opening act, a shaky acoustic performance by Khalid Hanifi of Ann Arbor-based group the Maypops. After a short, palate-cleansing break, Wainwright – dressed casually in an open-necked flowered shirt, gray tuxedo pants, a glittery green cravat and what appeared to be Teva sandals – finally took the stage to the audience’s deafening cheers. “I’m all nervous!” Wainwright laughed as he sat down at the piano. He apologized for the football team’s loss to Minnesota the day before and launched into “Grey Gardens” from his sophomore album, Poses.
If you’ve never heard one of Wainwright’s live performances, you’re missing out: Impossibly, his voice sounds fuller, more liquid, more beautiful in person than on his carefully engineered recordings. Add to this the fact that Wainwright accompanies himself immaculately on piano and guitar, and his concerts are more like experiencing a classical virtuoso’s performance than a pop singer’s. Before segueing into “Damned Ladies,” Wainwright contextualizes the song with an anecdote about opening for the New York City Opera, where he met a group of “wonderfully large people.” After that, Wainwright concluded the evening’s first stint at the piano with “Beauty Mark” from his self-created debut and dedicated “Pretty Things,” one of the quieter tracks from 2003’s theatrical Want One, to college students, who look like “dolls that you want to dress up.”
Although absence of Wainwright’s backing band meant that many of the expansive orchestral tracks on Want One could not be performed, hearing Wainwright’s multifaceted musicianship in such an intimate setting more than made up for this. Wainwright presents himself onstage with the impeccable skill and an honesty of a seasoned classical performer, thanks to, no doubt, his training as an operatic singer. But his cabaret artist-cum-opera diva persona allows him to take on a poppier, swaggering tone, especially when he’s behind the guitar. He performed a cool, soulful version of 2004 album Want Two‘s “Under the Peach Tree,” and then the sunny, upbeat “California” and “In My Arms” before going back to the piano.
Throughout the evening, Wainwright personalized his set list with anecdotes and often dedicated songs; the twinkly, Mozart-esque “Little Sister” was for the women in the audience, whom Wainwright also asked to sing his sister Martha’s part on “April Fool’s” after going back to his guitar. One highlight of the evening was one of Wainwright’s overtly sexual songs, “Gay Messiah,” which he introduced with a reminder that, in most of the world, homosexuality is still a capital crime.
After “The Art Teacher,” Wainwright introduced a new song, which was only one day old, called “Low-Grade Happiness.” Perhaps because of the vulnerability he felt practicing a new piece in front of the audience, Wainwright segued without pause into one of the songs that made him (and Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley and countless others) famous, “Hallelujah,” to close the show. But the audience wasn’t done with him yet: Their cheers brought Wainwright out for two encores, during which he performed “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” “11:11” and one of his songs in French.
Even if Rufus Wainwright isn’t the gay messiah, Sunday night’s performance proved that he’s not only won the hearts of mainstream listeners: He’s redefining what the singer/songwriter can do in contemporary music.