Arts: Rufus Wainwright burns the 9:30 Club to flames

Rufus Wainwright has performed at D.C.’s 9:30 Club several times over the past year, and each time the stage has been shortened and the dance floor expanded to accommodate an ever-growing audience. If his following keeps growing, Wainwright told a packed house Saturday night, he soon will perform outside the club.

Wainwright’s success deserves its ongoing growth spurt, as any attendant of Saturday’s sold-out performance could easily attest. Originally known as “just” a folk singer, following in the footsteps of his father, Loudon Wainwright III, his sophomore album Poses and performances with a full backup band show him to be both a master songwriter and showman. His set focused largely on Poses, a collection of catchy – even when downbeat – songs that allow his solo playing on piano or acoustic guitar to be fleshed out by bass, percussion and several guitars. His voice, sibilant and slurred, held up on a foundation of several impressive singers, including opening act Teddy Thompson.

Although Wainwright’s songs brandish sharp enough melodies that they can withstand a solo treatment, as D.C. saw when Wainwright appeared as Tori Amos’ opening act late last year, they show their true pop potential with full band orchestrations and clever harmonies. A jangly, distorted guitar or a jazzy clarinet line can alter a song’s mood and intensity drastically, and handles the often difficult task of keeping a solo performer’s show interesting.

Wainwright appears to know this, and he makes plenty of effort to catch the audience’s attention, changing the lineup song by song, sending off a few of his five supporting musicians and, when they stayed onstage, giving them a different instrument to perfectly fit the tone of each song. For instance, an electric bass can handle any song, but if it might sound just a little bit better with an acoustic, upright bass, played with a bow, then that’s just what shows up on stage.

Wainwright, his long hair making him look like a more cheerful Nick Drake, makes for a charming leading man. He fills the moments between songs with a friendly though often inane sort of chatter, graciously accepting a bouquet of roses from the audience while deflecting less classy expressions of attraction. For college students, he provides probably the best example of what a ’70s-era rock star looked like at his peak, whether crooning at the seat of a grand piano or center stage, cigarette in hand.

Although his songs remain in a holding pattern at mid-tempo, they offer a variety of moods, from the poppy cheer of “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” to the melancholy of “Rebel Prince.” If he ever before received comparisons to the song writing style of twilight Beatles albums, he invited when he showed off his new cover of “Across the Universe,” which appears as a bonus track on the new print of Pose. A more clever cover comes in his take on his father’s song, “One Man Guy,” which keeping in mind Wainright’s sexual preference, develops a far better pun than his father originally intended.

The show’s only downside came in the form of a little sibling rivalry. Martha Wainwright, a folk singer of lesser popularity, appears on tour with her brother as one of his backup singers and musicians. She seemed intent on drowning out her brother with much weaker, though more unique, voice and, which could have been turned down a notch. Or perhaps two.

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