Put Rufus Wainwright up on stage with an orchestral backing, and you will be guaranteed a set full of baroque compositions and delightfully complex pop tunes. But put him on stage with nothing but a guitar and a piano, and you will surely witness something extra special. Following the close of a rigorous tour in support of 2007’s Release the Stars, Wainwright made the decision to hit the road again for a short solo tour of North America that, lucky for us, included a stop at Santa Barbara Junior High’s Marjorie Luke-and a night of stripped-down musical intimacy that defied comparison.
The bossa nova stylings of Julianna Raye opened the night with songs off her upcoming album, Dominoes. Together with guitarist Brian Green, Raye meandered through her set list much like a coffeehouse chanteuse, calling out to Sergio Mendez and “New York Bossa Nova” in between as-yet-unreleased tunes like “Lost” and “Summer on My Mind.” The end result was a perfect soundtrack to the mellowest Brazilian vacation ever.
Entering the room without much more than a wave, Wainwright sat down, said “Hi,” and pounded out “Grey Gardens,” “The Maker Makes,” and “Beauty Mark” in perfect succession to open the set. And while his piano-playing skills were enough to wow any audience, it was Wainwright’s pitch-perfect baritone that stole the show. In between short asides about his mother, his opening act, and the “crazy rich people” of Santa Barbara, the singer jumped from piano to acoustic guitar, then back again for chill-inducing versions of newer tunes (“Sans-Souci”) and older favorites (“Peach Tree,” “California”). But technical troubles-and subsequent hilarity-ensued at Wainwright’s second round at the keys, when a falling mike stand forced a thrice-over start-stop of the normally dramatic “Going to a Town” (as well as a short cover of “There’s no Business Like Show Business”).
Lighthearted and self-deprecating as he may be, Wainwright shone during the seriously political mash up of “Nobody’s Off the Hook” and “Gay Messiah.” He explained the latter as a song that went from a joke to a protest to a “literal prayer” when Bush took office. “I’m Not Ready to Love” (lovingly dedicated to his boyfriend) was as emotionally raw-and beautifully haunting-as one could imagine. In the end, Wainwright gracefully bore the weight of two standing ovations, proving that chamber pop can work without the chamber -as long as you’ve got the heart, soul, and vocal chops to pull it off.