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Review: Rufus Wainwright at Meyerson Symphony Center

Posted 10:09am on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012

In what was surely a first for the space, a man wearing what looked like a diaper and cardboard angel's wings stood onstage at the Meyerson Symphony Center Sunday night.

Clutching a toy bow and arrow, tipped with a large plastic heart, he was, he told the puzzled audience, the deity known as Cupid. In order to return Rufus Wainwright to the stage for an encore, a "bacchanalian dance party" would have to ensue, and we would need to plead with "Rufus Apollo" to grace us with his presence. The mystification grew further when a few of Wainwright's band members returned to the stage, clad, respectively, as a wizard, a scantily dressed belly dancer and a young Egyptian slave.

Would it be surprising to learn all the chicanery culminated in Wainwright, barely clad in a toga and blonde wig, doing battle with a "gay messiah," and being force-fed a comically over-sized salami sandwich while giddy audience members danced onstage to songs like Bitter Tears and Old Whore's Diet, next to out-sized bunches of grapes and enormous martini glasses? It was a delirious finish to an already unforgettable evening, and one of the most comical, bizarre and exuberant encores I've ever seen -- at the Meyerson or elsewhere.

But before all of the Greek god and giant sandwich nonsense, Wainwright and his seven-piece band spent roughly 100 minutes pulling from his latest, superb LP Out of the Game, as well as his ample back catalog. Opening with an absolutely stunning, acappella rendition of Game's closer Candles (written in honor of his late mother, Kate McGarrigle), Wainwright moved easily from early pop gems (April Fools, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk) to more complex, recent compositions (Going to a Town, 14th Street), while making room to pay moving tribute to both parents (the mid-set take on Loudon Wainwright III's One Man Guy was incredible).

Wainwright remains, as ever, ready and willing to poke fun at his status as a critically acclaimed, commercially ignored artist, while offering support for President Barack Obama and taking a swipe at Liza Minnelli, who reportedly dismissed Wainwright's thorough recreation of her mother, Judy Garland's, famous Carnegie Hall concert. His peerless tenor has only strengthened over the years, and his confidence as a performer has likewise grown -- how else to explain that toga? -- allowing him to truly captivate with his idiosyncratic material. (Yes, he even transcends silliness like the overwrought free-for-all that was the encore.)

The Meyerson was plenty full for a Sunday night, but the vast pockets of empty seats was distressing. Wainwright's no stranger to Texas -- he last played Bass Hall in 2009 -- but his inability to not routinely sell out venues of the Meyerson's size is frustrating. Those of you bemoaning a lack of substance in today's popular music? Someone's doing a bang-up job blending smart, wry lyrics with devastating melodies, and it's Wainwright. The next time you glimpse his name in the show listings, just buy a ticket. You'll be rewarded, as were the wise souls inside the Meyerson Sunday night, with one of the best shows you'll see all year.

The excellence extended to the opening acts as well. Troubadour Teddy Thompson, a member of Wainwright's backing band, doled out 20 minutes of dynamic, beautifully considered pop-rock, while Wainwright's sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, offered up surprisingly supple tunes of her own, suggesting the family's musical tradition runs quite deep indeed.

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