Billed as "Rufus and Martha Wainwright's Christmas 101," the first of three shows held this year in Oakland and Los Angeles featuring the son and daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle was like many holiday gatherings – sprawling, sometimes a little disorganized, but built on firm bonds of blood and love.
The Wainwright/McGarrigle family tree, however, is a bit more accomplished than most; even branches you might not recognize, like the ones that bear Sloan Wainwright or Lucy Wainwright Roche, possess extraordinary talent, and these folks all have similarly skilled pals. Wednesday's show featured country legend Emmylou Harris, folk singer Maria Muldaur, longtime Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, former Eels drummer Butch Norton and another dozen musicians and singers.
The show was a continuation of a tradition started in 2005 by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the sibling Quebec folk duo lauded by critics since the Seventies. Kate died in 2010, but the shows have continued to raise money for the Kate McGarrigle Fund, which donates to researching sarcoma, the cancer that claimed the singer. Nearly everyone who performed in Wednesday's show was either related to the singer and/or had worked with her or her children – Parks helped Rufus get his first record contract and partially produced his first album; Harris and Muldaur have both covered McGarrigle songs. There was a lot of history here, and it showed in the intimacy with which the musicians connected to the material and each other.
The show started with a strikingly casual version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" sung as the female-dominated clan sprawled across the stage in front of the male band. Rufus soloed for "Spotlight on Christmas," his anti-materialistic holiday ode, before he and Jenni Muldaur (Maria's daughter) traded flirtations on the pop-jazz standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Lucy Wainwright Roche delivered the evening's first entirely polished performance, a mournful rendition of Joni Mitchell's seasonal piano ballad "River."
The evening continued to unfold in eclectic fashion, encompassing everything from the blues of Bessie Smith's "At the Christmas Ball" to the bluegrass of Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus." There was even a groovy French rock tune with a refrain that translates as "Santa Claus is a hippie."
Martha Wainwright proved herself even more dramatic than her brother. Whether crooning chanson or English-language classics like "I'll Be Home for Christmas," she brought a Gallic intensity to every line. Even the way she grasped the air evoked silent film stars.
Emmylou Harris, on the other hand, can be utterly commanding with the gentlest of deliveries. Joined only by Rufus and Martha singing background in subtle harmony, she sang a devastatingly focused "The First Noel" a cappella, her white hair glowing under blue and purple light. Other performers weren't quite as poised: Rufus in particular relied on the lyrical teleprompters at the foot of the stage during a woefully under-rehearsed reading of "Good King Wenceslas," only partially compensating with his typically charming and effusive stage banter.
But any thought that he might be entirely winging this show vanished when in the second half of the evening Rufus requested his mic be turned off for "Cantique de Noël," the original French version of "O Holy Night." On his albums, Wainwright may prefer the hi-fi caress of lush instrumentation, but here he proved he doesn't even need amplification, justly commanding the evening's first standing ovation. His aunt Sloan Wainwright can also belt: possessing a gospel-rich contralto roar, she wailed through "Thank God It's Christmas" almost as if she'd been born in a southern Baptist church. Maria Muldaur took a lighter approach for her second cameo, turning her biggest hit into "Christmas at the Oasis" and singing of putting reindeer to bed.
Insisting that a guitar be tuned, Rufus stopped the final song of the evening shortly before it started. But when the entire cast – complete with small children in their arms or at their feet – launched into John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" for the second time, the evening's cross-generational message of togetherness came fully realized. This Christmas 101 was both elemental and advanced.