Rufus Wainwright :: 05.16 :: Grand Opera House :: York, UK

The Grand Opera House is grandiose. Like many centuries-old gig rooms, the venue was designed in an intricate Victorian fashion, dressed with white columns, theatre boxes - complete with Cupid's face carved into the facade, velvet curtains, and tiled flooring, all hovering around an old-fashioned, spacious stage. Much like the rest of town, the venue is a momentous space, cringing with history and stained with stories that produce an almost humbling feeling once the doors are opened. York is one of the oldest, still-established towns in all of England. It beams classical through and through, still encircled by a wall that the Vikings erected a thousand years ago as well as the remnants of the Roman conquest of the region nearly two thousand years ago. A statue of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who conquered the region during the period, hangs just outside the York Minster - a church that rivals Westminster Abbey in sheer awe. Now the church is roped in between charming pubs, antique shops, and cobblestone streets. York, a busy tourist town, and its Grand Opera House contain some of the last shards of the centuries-old aura and history still available in our commodity-driven, modern world. This is the textbook town for a day of reminiscing, washing down the history lesson with thick pints of room temperature bitter and Yorkshire pudding.

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright is a quintessential artist for a space like the Grand. His songs are drenched with classical, vaudeville-influenced crooning, and his attention to orchestration and love of opera create a symphonic sound without the symphony. In addition, he was brought up in one of Canada's most talented musical families, weaning his original craft from the musical cusps of both father Loudon Wainwright III and mother Kate McGarrigle, as well as burgeoning singer-songwriting sister Martha. Rufus is an unadorned talent, possessing a voice that rivals Jeff Buckley's and a musical imagination that combines the old-fashioned with the forward-thinking, which is a "must" when crooning about being openly gay in a classically-driven style.

Joan as Policewoman
Joan as Policewoman opened the show, playing a short teaser of love songs that revolved around her strong, forceful tenor. Borrowing themes from artists like K.D. Lang and the Indigo Girls, Joan's voice was refreshingly unique and surprisingly strong. Dedicating one somber love song to the late great Elliott Smith, Joan's set was lovely but too short for my tastes. This is a surefire voice-box to be on the lookout for. In addition, she plays in Rufus' band.

After a short intermission, the house lights dimmed and the velvet curtain was raised in classic Victorian style, and Rufus and his seven-piece band wound through a staggeringly impressive set. Wainwright's loquacious, operatic howling dominated each track, as his band tastefully provided a strong backdrop of rolled-around pastures of folk, rock, jazz, samba, bluegrass, and classical. Rufus switched between piano and acoustic guitar throughout the show, while his impressive collective of musicians (including Jeff Buckley's former drummer and Joan as Policewoman) fiddled with banjos, accordions, recorders, violins, keyboards, and electronics throughout the night, filling the sweet sounding venue with syrupy melodies and sugary back-up vocals that strikingly accented Wainwright's honest songs.

Rufus Wainwright
By Samantha Isom
The show was long, very long - nearly three straight hours of music, and with most UK shows teetering off at the hour mark, Wainwright's stamina was more than welcome. Nearly thirty songs (I lost count) played, including the brilliant "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," the harmonious "Art Teacher" that cascaded through operatic arias and simple piano tickling, "Gay Messiah," dedicated to the Catholic Church, and the anthemic "Beautiful Child." Rufus blended full-band rock numbers with subdued, focused solo pieces. He even playing a triage of solo ballads for each member of his family, as well as absolutely gorgeous adaptations of both Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and The Beatles' "Across the Universe," a song he contributed to the I am Sam soundtrack.

Every operatically soaked ballad was met with delight by a quiescent, extremely respectful (another classical, upper class English trait) audience, only clapping at the proper time whilst showering the septet with praise via restrained respect throughout the night. It was a completely different experience from the average general admission rock show. Rufus Wainwright commanded reverence, and with the aura of the venue at his beck-and-call, his wish was steadily and gleefully granted

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus' candidly camp stage banter was energizing, radiating a jovial frankness towards his personal choices and adding even more brilliance to a show that transcended over and above the music. During the encore, Wainwright and his band played with societal stereotypes by collectively (all seven members) stripping down to multicolored sequined thongs, strapping on fairy wings and witch capes, and doing the rest of the show in a Paris is Burning, transsexual manner. Met with resounding laughter and applause, Wainwright's comedic nature towards the seriousness of his craft was the icing on the evening's rainbow cake, one layered to the brim with both music and performance art.

While his craft is not for the weak-willed or conventionally squeamish, Rufus Wainwright has a stylish sound that amazingly blends classic fervor with modern gay showmanship. By doing so, he redefined the word "classic" in traditionalized, ancient York. While the centuries-old churches and habitual establishments may turn a blind eye or squawk with disgust, there is nothing more time-honored than an artist so confident in himself that he can sing in a pink sequined thong.

Shain Shapiro
JamBase | York
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[Published on: 5/31/05]

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