Rufus Wainwright review

Rufus Wainwright

Scott Matthews

Harrogate International Centre

"I DON'T know Harrogate. Let's see. It's famous for baths. It's famous for tea and it's famous for antiques. Is that right? One thing I do know is that it's pretty and pretty things are important in my life."

One bit of between-song banter by Rufus Wainwright is more flamboyant than support act Scott Matthews' entire set.

Hailing from the Midlands, in his tousled hair and casual but neatly jacketed dress sense Matthews could pass for Nick Drake in late 1960s Cambridge, though he sounds completely modern.

Sitting on a lone chair, combining warm, folk-blues acoustic guitar with lively cello accompaniment by dextrous young jazz musican Danny Keane, there's nothing heavy or flash or melodically striking about most of the tracks he plays off last year's debut album Passing Stranger.

Like a rootsier, less pop version of Paolo Nutini, he looks downwards when singing, mumbling to himself almost.

It's partly a cutesy device to attract attention and establish intimacy with the crowd but it also suggests an honesty that is evident in Scott Matthews' strongest suit at present - a reluctance to take anything as far as it can or, sometimes, should go.

Rufus Wainwright is full of talent and full of himself, though at first it seems we may be seeing an all-new, serious version of a man who's reputation still exceeds his record sales, though that's started to change this year.

The opening number Release The Stars, the title track of his recent number two hit album, pronounces the death of "old Hollywood", the second, Going To A Town sees Wainwright complaining that "I'm so tired of America."

Both singer and band may be dressed in stripes and glitter but like the giant black and white version of the US flag behind them, the colours are strictly muted, the stage lights picking off only pinpricks of glamour.

You can't hold back Wainwright for long, however. One minute on guitar in front of his impressive band of multi-instrumentalists, the next alone on piano, the first half of what turns out to be a two-hour set is all over the place.

The man literally won’t sit still musically or physically or shut up talking for that matter.

When he sings with the whole band, led by musical arranger and guitarist extraordinaire Gerry Leonard, (drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and three piece brass/string/percussion section) on the lusher tracks from his more recent albums (Want One and Want Two) you wish you could hear those sentimental if barbed lyrics better in the middle of that powerful but shrill sound mix.

When he’s alone on stage on glorious piano and voice versions of songs like Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk off 2001's Poses album , a different dilemma rears it’s head.

Just as you’ve got used to his unusual and amazingly rich vocals that stretch and soar an unfeasible distance inside the sold-out Harrogate International Centre, technically brilliant but deliberately flirting with dissonance, after you’ve swallowed all his brave and brazen confessions of past failings and indiscretions, just as you’re wallowing in the majesty of his gay flamboyance, Wainwright undermines his own gravitas with attacks of the cutes, stuttering over piano strokes mid-song, stopping and starting then stopping again, flirting with the audience, playing with his own charm.

What a show off! Even his quiet is loud.

It doesn't matter what he's playing at this point, whether it’s the deeply melodramatic ache of Leaving For Paris or the hedonistic frippery of Between My Legs, whether it’s pop or pomp, there‘s still a question nagging away.

Is Rufus Wainwright showman or artist, a genius playing the fool or fool playing at being genius?

It’s far easier to take him seriously after the interval when he reappears in full Austrian lederhosen outfit.

Aged 34 now, he remains, despite his own eventful and troubled private live, a romantic a heart .

His own material, songs like Nobody’s Off The Hook and Beautiful Child, are big songs, not only in delivery but in meaning, songs of the like few of his generation save for the late Jeff Buckley or, perhaps, Thom Yorke, even attempt .

It's hard not to be impressed , if nothing else.

Give him something seemingly simpler on the surface, however, and Wainwright is even better.

Despite being such an original performer, the whole night turns on songs he didn’t write.

He puts his own stamp on both George Gershwin’s Foggy Day and Noel Coward’s If Love Were All without losing their prettiness or meaning, something he also pulled off successfully three months ago in a Judy Garland tribute show at the London Palladium.

Boldness of thought is matched by boldness of action.

For Macushla, an early 20th century Irish folk standard by John McCormack that he clearly loves, Wainwright dispenses with the microphones for himself and the band.

Neither music nor performer shrink at all inside the cavernous auditorium shorn of all amplification; this man who takes pride in being camper than Elton John is truly a serious artist.

Shortly afterwards Wainwright reappears under the dazzling glitter balls suspended from the ceiling as Judy Garland in full drag for an all singing, all dancing version of show tune Get Happy – and I do mean dancing, his versatile band certainly earn their money!

No fly-by-night entertainer or talented under-achiever, dressed now in jacket and tights and hoofing for all he's worth, Wainwright has seen and tackled most of life, the good and the bad, in sadness and joy and still believes it is worth celebrating, warts and all.

"God bless you Rufus," a lone female fan shouts in a quiet moment as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say.

Smiling that slightly gap-toothed smile, bounding across the stage, his energy makes it all seem so bright.

If only the world was as wonderful as Rufus Wainwright.

Graham Chalmers