Last night, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III opened for his son, Rufus Wainwright, at the Prospect Park Bandshell. The awkwardness of this did not go unremarked upon. "I feel like he is my son," said Rufus at one point, gesturing to his father's outfit, which included cargo shorts. Loudon in his turn, reminded Rufus of the time when Rufus opened for him. Rufus rolled his eyes.
The Wainwright family is a rare one in American cultural life, a musical dynasty that has crossed genre and generation to give us, through art, a fractured portrait of their emotional inner-workings. The clan includes parents, folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, as well as children, pop musicians Rufus and Martha Wainwright. The family has often performed together and written songs about each other.
Loudon Wainwright III, a Grammy winning folk artist, most famous for the 1972 cult classic, "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road," played for a good hour or so before his son appeared. The elder Wainwright is known for his witty, self-referential lyrics some of which reflected the current economic situation (his newest album is entitled 10 Songs For the New Depression and features ditties like "The Krugman Blues") and others that dealt with his relationship with his own father and mother, as well as his relationship with his son and daughter.
Wainwright's arrangements were spare, just him singing with a guitar or banjo, but his voice is still in fantastic shape. His music may air on the monotonous side (it is not particularly hook driven) but his lyrics are acerbic and reliably wry.
Rufus Wainwright took the stage in quite a different fashion. Whereas his father stood alone at the edge of the stage, armed with only a guitar, red tube socks and the aforementioned cargo shorts, Rufus emerged wearing a vest with a dramatic flower pinned to his lapel and sat down to a piano adorned with fake candles. He sang a mixture of new and old songs. He even brought a pianist on stage to accompany him while he sang selections from his Judy Garland tribute album Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall.
Rufus has a beautiful voice, and a special, strangely poignant stage presence. He has the unique ability to communicate sadness and emotion, and every song seemed to sap almost all of his emotional energy. It was an astounding performance.
Although, the show consisted of father and son, other family members were routinely acknowledged. This was especially moving, considering that Rufus' mother Kate McGarigle passed away this January. Rufus sang the song "Beauty Mark" which he wrote for his mother, as well as one of McGarrigle's own compositions about Loudon, entitled "Walking Song." Rufus also sang a song about his sister, who recently had a baby.
The concert was intensely emotional, insightful and touching. It is not often that a family can examine their own dynamics with such lacerating honesty and fundamental respect.