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Concert Review: Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall

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It was a sort of metaconcert: a concert about a concert. Last night, Rufus Wainwright channeled Judy Garland’s famous April 1961 show and did so in the same venue, Carnegie Hall. When I first heard about this unusual undertaking, I thought it sounded like a stunt and that I would rather hear him do his own stuff – his recordings are quite devoon – but I knew I had to be there. And I’m immensely glad that I was. It was a delightful show, occasionally downright astonishing.

It’s a bit like Hitchcock tying his hands behind his back in Rope and Lifeboat; Rufus Wainwright is a very fine songwriter and his albums are a kaleidoscopic mix of styles and sounds. Here, he was limiting himself to other composers’ material, not even allowing himself the flexibility to pick the songs. But although this was certainly an affectionate tribute to Garland, he brought his own sensibility to each of the songs and the results were often spectacular.

Backed by a fantastic 40-piece orchestra, Rufus did the whole songlist from the ’61 show with a few surprise twists. Although some songs proved more exciting and more suited to his talents than others, there were few, if any, duds. Several were very memorable, indeed, including a bone-chilling “The Man That Got Away.” The energy from the audience was considerable as well, and added to the general buzz.

Sis Martha Wainwright made a guest appearance and stopped the show with an electrifying “Stormy Weather.” Mom Kate McGarrigle joined in for two numbers, although disappointingly, she didn’t sing, only playing piano (and supplying a few wisecracks at her son’s expense).

I understand there will be a CD and DVD of this project. (I saw the second of two shows and there was no video equipment visible.) They should be worth catching, although I will be surprised if they capture the full energy of the evening.

And, I still want to hear him do his own stuff sometime.

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