One event lures even people who loathe the Hamptons out to Long Island's East End on the last weekend in August -- The Last Song of Summer, a benefit for the Watermill Center. Last summer's concert was a sell-out: Rufus Wainwright and Jessye Norman. This Saturday (August 29), Wainwright will appear with Norah Jones and his sister Martha.
Beyond the Rufus-Norah duets, I have another reason to mark the date. The Wainwrights are the offspring of Kate McGarrigle (of the famed duo, the McGarrigle Sisters) and singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Last December, I attended the McGarrigles' annual Carnegie Hall holiday concert, a delightfully informal affair that had Kate, Anna and their kids harmonizing with friends like Emmylou Harris, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Jimmy Fallon as if they were caroling at your front door. That is, until Rufus sang "O Holy Night," with his mother at the piano, and his gorgeous unamplified voice turned Carnegie into a cathedral. And Martha: If you didn't know her work before, you had her in heavy rotation soon after.
The holiday concert was on my 10 best list for 2008; I see the Watermill benefit as a contender for this year. "I'll definitely do a piece from my new opera, Prima Donna, in French," Rufus told me. "Norah and I will do a Hoagy Carmichael song. And there's been a request for more uptempo numbers, so we'll do a little Elvis. But don't worry -- there will still be some of the gothic melancholy you expect from me."
For her part, Martha won't be performing songs from her extravagantly autobiographical CDs. "Those songs are so personal that, after a while, I get tired of hearing my voice as I sing them," she told me.
"Low boredom threshold?" I asked.
"No. High excitement threshold."
So Martha will sing some Edith Piaf songs (from her forthcoming Piaf tribute CD). Why Piaf? "As a kid, I learned about her from Rufus, who learned about her from my mother's records. He picked out the good stuff, and we played it loud in living room. As a female singer, she became one of my greatest influences."
"Will you wear Piaf's signature black dress?"
"Will Rufus sing with you?"
"Oh, yes -- and my mom."
"But Kate's not on the bill."
"She doesn't have to be," Martha said. "She's our trump card."
"Or our wild card," Rufus said. This will, he added, be very much in the style of the holiday show: "Norah and I will sing together, the three of us will sing together, we'll all sing together..."
Why this cause? After all, the East End of Long Island -- which used to be home to fishermen, potato farmers and a small cadre of artists and writers -- is now "The Hamptons," a kaleidoscope of air kisses, houses the size of factories and caterers who charge $100 for a pound of lobster salad. Tickets for this benefit are $125, $250 and $500. Out here? No problem.
And this is, after all, the Watermill Center, which opened in 1992 as a laboratory for the performances of Robert Wilson and has evolved into a retreat for as many as 80 emerging artists, musicians and dramatists. Wilson is a Society darling, beloved by the monied art set. Raising money? No problem.
"Sorry," Rufus said. "That's last year's thinking. Now it's important to support the arts -- the first funding cut is always the arts. I heard a story about Churchill during World War II. He was asked to cut arts funding. He refused: 'What do you think we're fighting for?'"
"The Last Song of Summer" kicks off at 5 PM this Saturday, August 29. For tickets, click here