"We've returned to the scene of the crime," Rufus Wainwright joked during the second half of his show at Carnegie Hall Monday night, to audience members who included Michael Stipe, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. He was referring to 2006, when he staged his Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall concerts, whose live tribute album earned him a Grammy nomination.
He played some of those Garland songs, but it was a different kind of show for the singer. While Rufus Does Judy featured a 36-piece orchestra, this time Wainwright used only his voice and a piano, in the spirit of his new LP All Days Are Nights: The Songs for Lulu — which was written just days before his mother, Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle, died in January from cancer.
Before the show, an announcer requested no applause between songs. In nightclub-dim lighting, Wainwright didn't speak once, leaving long silences between numbers while images of large, brooding eyes — which multiplied as the set progressed — were projected over him.
Wainwright emerged in a long, black Victorian-style dress, kicking into "Who Are You New York?", and namedropping Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden. He sang about his strained relationship with his sister on "Martha," and his mother's hospital stay on "Zebulon." The performance was spiritual and tense; at the end of the first set, he left the stage slowly walking into the light — perhaps how he imagined his mother leaving this world.
During the second set, the stage may have been adorned with prayer candles, but Wainwright was loose and upbeat. He had changed into a purple velvet suit and a bright orange tie and announced, "I am so glad that first half is over!"
This set was full of tributes — including "Memphis Skyline," his 2004 tribute to Jeff Buckley; and "Dinner at Eight," dedicated to his father Loudon Wainwright III, which he confessed "starts a little rough but is ultimately a love song."
The set was also full of celebration. Wainwright proudly announced that his dream of seeing his work played at Lincoln Center will come true in 2012, when his first opera Prima Donna will be performed by the New York City Opera. "I always dreamed of going to see one of my own pieces at Lincoln Center," he said. "We made it!" The singer also mentioned his recent engagement to Jörn Weisbrodt, his companion of five years, joking that he is "soon to be Jörn Wainwright."
To reprise choice Garland material, Wainwright welcomed pianist Stephen Oremus on stage. This allowed the singer to stand and perform with the swagger you might get from him at an after-hours nightclub. "I love how I'm wearing my sweatpants — it's very Judy," he said adding a quick hip thrust. "Don't worry. They're very expensive."
He sounded passionate on stripped takes on "Do it Again" and "The Man That Got Away." "My dad grew up with Liza," he told the crowd. "Judy Garland used to baby-sit him — she made him sandwiches. And look what happened. What was in those sandwiches?"
Martha Wainwright soon joined her brother, arriving on the stage almost menacingly in a sparkling black dress before being introduced. They sung the French ballad "Complainte De La Butte" from Moulin Rouge, which was a family standard for the two growing up in Montreal. Rufus showcased his opera-trained vocals on the delicate melody while Martha's soared. They also traded verses on a stunning "Hallelujah," which he introduced as "a song you've never heard before — like this."
Wainwright rounded out the set with impassioned takes on his classics like "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" and "Poses," ending with his mother's "Walking Song." "I miss her as a mother, friend and character, but what I miss really is her talent," he said. "Believe it or not, I pale in comparison to what she would write."
As Stipe put on his coat near his seat, he told Rolling Stone he was impressed with the gig. "It was extraordinary — it was heart wrenching and beautiful," he said. The R.E.M. singer goes back a long way with Wainwright. "I first saw Rufus in San Francisco perform in a club of about 80 people — just him and the piano."
After the show, Wainwright told Rolling Stone he wasn't nervous before taking the stage. "The night before the show Maria Callas came to me in my dreams all dressed in white, told me to stop gaping at her, kicked me in the face and then smiled," he says. "I then knew waking up that the show would be a success."