Rufus Wainwright is nearly half his life away from the start of his recording career, but at the Beacon Theatre on Tuesday night, songs from his first two full-length LPs sounded like they were written and recorded just that day.
The show was part of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s All These Poses Anniversary Tour, named for a line from 2001’s Poses. These shows are meant to celebrate the albums that not only launched Wainwright’s career but also established him as one of the great composers and lyricists of the 21st century, and at the Beacon, the qualities that got him there were on full display — from his dry humor and subtle comedic timing to his warm tenor, which has only gotten richer with age.
Wainwright’s show was separated into two parts. The first was dedicated to his self-titled 1998 debut, a celebrated project produced almost entirely by the great Jon Brion. He entered the stage in a top hat and baggy pinstripe suit, performing “April Fools” at center stage with guitar in hand. Behind him, a projected scene of Montreal paid tribute to the city where he grew up. Pink and blue lights washed over the band onstage and the rest of the theater, changing with each song.
He performed most of Rufus Wainwright, shifting between piano and guitar while also stripping off parts of his outfit until he revealed a gold sequin vest to lusty audience screams. He told stories of Montreal and remembered his mother, the talented Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. After “Millbrook,” he recalled his early attempts at songwriting, including a song called “Liberty Cabbage” about his fear of America. She liked it so much, he said, that he wrote more just like it — a whole collection of operatic pop songs full of “Straussian licks and Wagnerian changes” that she didn’t like as much as the first. So he pushed himself to write “Beauty Mark,” a cutting retort that McGarrigle happened to adore.
After “Beauty Mark,” Wainwright turned to more recent memories. He covered Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” impeccably, and told a story about performing two of her other songs at a recent 75th birthday celebration for the legendary artist, orchestrated by his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt. At the Los Angeles event, Wainwright added, “Both Sides Now” was performed by Seal. He let that name hang in the air for a long moment, then — showing off his excellent comedic delivery — added that Seal’s version of the classic ballad was “fucking amazing,” with just a touch of faux-jealousy. After a new song, “Sword of Damocles,” which celebrated Congress’ recent blue wave, the stage went dark for intermission.
Wainwright returned after a few moments with a different top hat and a large, colorful, glittering cape. The scene projected behind him changed, this time to monuments of his New York City, like the Flatiron district and Hotel Chelsea. For Part Two, Wainwright performed his 2001 LP Poses in full, starting with the sweet, teasing “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk.” The rest of the album rolled out rapidly, with several more outfit changes; eventually, Wainwright found himself behind the piano in a long, black feather cape, belting “Poses.” That cape came in handy especially during “Evil Angel” when a red, ominous light shrouded him and the band, transforming him into the Luciferian figure he warns of in the song.
The night ended with a powerful trio of songs, a final emotional gut punch. “Okay New York, let’s try and have some fun,” he offered cheekily once he returned to the stage for the encore. Going back to debut album one last time, he sang the tender “Imaginary Love.” He gave us an unambiguously anti-Trump statement, calling out the President by name and noting that the sentiments from his 2007 single “Going to a Town” (where he sings about feeling tired of America) remain more apt than ever.
The final notes of Wainwright’s encore came from his iconic cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” He stood at the front of the stage in a pink bomber jacket, singing along as a soft chorus formed in the audience. It was a unifying moment, a glimmer of hope and an indelible testament to the reputation Wainwright deserves as a live performer.
Rufus Wainwright’s All These Poses Anniversary Tour Setlist:
“In My Arms”
“Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell cover)
“Sword of Damocles”
“Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk”
“Tower of Learning”
“One Man Guy” (Loudon Wainwright III cover)
“In a Graveyard”
“Going to a Town”
“Across the Universe” (Beatles cover)