Part 2 Judy Garland, Milwaukee, Operas and more
Part 2 Judy Garland, Milwaukee, Operas and more
Discs 7 and 8. Rufus does Judy at Carnegie Hall (2007)
If anybody had any doubts as to how confident or daring Rufus Wainwright was, then this made it clearly obvious. The boy’s got balls. Attempting to cover Judy Garland is one thing, he did it at the end of Want Two for example, but recreating what is, to many, regarded as the ‘greatest concert performance of all time” – Judy’s 1961 Carnegie Hall appearance - is not just daring, it’s ridiculous!
It’s easy to look back on it now and say that it was always going to be good but this could really have been a disaster. It’s like trying to release a cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s a stupid, ridiculous idea that seems destined to fail. This could have been the musical equivalent of Gus van Sant’s Psycho; an unmitigated disaster. The fact that it isn’t pays testament to just how talented and intelligent Rufus actually is. Is it as good as that legendary show? No, of course not but it is bloody good and you’ll wish you’d been there for it nonetheless.
Rufus’ show is effortlessly entertaining, full of charm and wit but it’s constantly aware both of itself and its debt to Judy Garland. What made Judy’s performance so great is that she was completely unaware at the start of that show of just how much she was loved by the audience. You can hear and sense her shock and surprise at the warmth and love she received from the crowd. Over the course of her performance you can hear her growing in confidence and giving that love right back and now, even fifty years later, your pulse starts to race when you listen to that show. With this, you’ll simply have a good time but that’s still a resounding success. This really has no right to be as good as it is. The fact that this isn’t embarrassing at all is impressive enough.
Disc 9. Milwaukee At Last! (2009)
Another live album, this time heavily centred around the Release The Stars material. Rufus is, of course, in good form and his band back him majestically. It’s all well and good but by no means essential. Still, the performance of Leaving For Paris No.2 is stunning as is the medley of Not Ready To Love/Slideshow.
Disc 10. All I Want (DVD 2005)
A documentary, or a ‘portrait’ of Rufus as it pretentiously claims, that covers his life up to the eve of Want Two’s release. With extensive interviews with Rufus himself and a cast that includes his mother, sister, Neil Tenant, Elton John, Sting, The Scissor Sisters (?), Mark Gatiss (??) and the singer from Keane (WTF?) it’s an interesting little film. As you’d expect Rufus is brutally honest, discussing his sexuality and sexual escapades, drug taking, etcetera with a refreshing openness and a pleasing ability to laugh at himself. Everyone else, family aside, simply fawns all over him – which is fair enough I suppose. You’ll also find out some lovely little snippets of Rufus trivia, like Go Or Go Ahead was a love letter to crystal meth, of sorts. Fans will love it and there are some interesting little extras on there too.
Disc 11. Live at the Fillmore ( DVD 2004)
Recorded live in the famous San Francisco venue, this disc contains Rufus and band performing, mainly, Want material, which can only be a good thing. The band are fantastic, the performance is great and the crowd are in great form, very respectful in the quiet parts and suitably enthusiastic when called upon. (Take note Amsterdam!) Sadly the director seems to like looking at the band from weird angles, so you get lots of shots of the rear end of the backing singers and up bass players nostrils. Whenever Rufus is at the piano you seem to be peeking at him from round corners or watching him fall off the end of the frame. It all makes you feel like you’re sneaking around, getting glimpses of things you really shouldn’t and actually makes the cinematography quite obtrusive, which is a shame.
Still, the show itself is great and even some heavy handed editing and a bunch of dodgy camera shots can’t ruin it completely. The set list is incredible and it’s a disc any fan will be happy to spend some time with I’d imagine. Plus, you get introduced to the forgotten bride and the man in a bunny suit, which brings up so many questions and provides very few answers. What was the barking woman about, exactly? Can anybody tell me?
Disc 12. Release The Stars (DVD 2007)
This is possibly the weakest disc of all in the House of Rufus collection. An accompaniment to the album, this contains an interview with Rufus commenting on the album track by track but also contains footage of a few songs recorded live at The Orange Lounge, wherever that is. It’s pleasant enough but I guess this will be the disc that sits in its sleeve more than any other. Still, you’ll want to check out the version of The Art Teacher, with added wah wah pedal no less! It’s great, if slightly baffling.
Disc 13. Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live at the London Palladium (DVD 2007)
Recreating that infamous 1961 Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall in New York obviously wasn’t enough for Rufus. No, he decided to do it again, in London and this time they filmed it and released it as a live DVD so that you can watch it too. How nice of them.
That sounds a little petty but it’s actually a cracking little disc. Again, it highlights just how talented, confident and bloody minded he can be. It takes some guts to put on this kind of show. To do it this well takes some considerable talent. It’s a joy to watch, a big ‘love in’ from Rufus and the crowd and it’s worth watching just to see him perform Get Happy in tights. Wonderful.
Disc 14. Milwaukee at Last!!! (DVD 2009)
It’s the album from earlier in the set, with moving pictures! Actually, it isn’t. The album cherry picked ten songs whereas this disc contains a full set list, spanning most of his career. It’s your standard live DVD format – on stage performances intercut with backstage footage – but it’s a lot of fun to watch nonetheless. Recorded towards the end of his Release the Stars tour this is primarily here to serve as a document of the fantastic touring band he had working with him on that tour. Having graduated up to much larger venues than he had previously, the show is particularly lavish and that’s just the fashion! Honestly, you’ve never seen so many stripes. The bands’ outfits are part Liberace, part P.T. Barnum and there’s an almost circus like feel to the show. People in the crowd wave little silver stars on sticks while a mirrorball sends little circles of light spinning around the theater and that’s just on the opening number! It’s a great show to watch and well worth having a nice night in for if only to see the extraordinary performance of some of the crowd onstage during Between My Legs. It’s just daft as hell and looks like a lot of fun was had by all. There’s an awful lot of talk about brooches though, so be warned. And I haven’t even mentioned the lederhosen yet!
Disc 15. Prima Donna: The Making of an Opera (DVD 2010)
Things take a more serious turn here, with a documentary covering the preparation and build up to the opening night of Prima Donna, Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera. That’s right, a full blown opera, in the grandest of traditions. It may seem like an almost obvious choice for Rufus to move into writing opera – it was certainly less of an eyebrow raiser than when Damon Albarn did it – but it still doesn’t make it any less challenging, or daunting a project to undertake.
Now I’ll readily admit that I’m no opera buff but I’m aware of just how elitist and brutal a world it can be to work in. For a work to succeed in that realm it needs to pass exams far loftier and stringent than any pop/rock magazine would ever dream of approaching. What you learn primarily from this documentary is how everything is scrutinized to an almost academic level and it turns out to be a far more revealing documentary than All I Want. Where All I Want seems to fawn all over him and indulges in the frank talk of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Prima Donna is quite different.
Prima Donna is an insightful and endlessly fascinating documentary and crucial viewing for everyone who’s ever had even a passing interest in Rufus and his work. In Prima Donna you get to see Rufus during the creative process, facing one of his most daunting personal challenges and as such you see a completely different side of him. It’s the first time in this entire set that you get to see him being truly nervous and apprehensive. Although it still presents him in a broadly positive light it’s a much more realistic and ‘human’ look at him and his personality and is quite fascinating to watch. It’s also the first time you hear anything close to criticism in this set.
The response to Prima Donna is… lukewarm, shall we say, from those in the trade and at times they seem to damn him with faint praise but you still get the impression that everyone commends him for his efforts. I have to say, the little I’ve heard of the final piece – which is essentially what appears in this film – makes it difficult for me to assess it at all objectively but for my untrained ear, what you hear here is, at times, quite stunning. But what do I know?
Disc 16. Rufus Rarities
Here’s where the box drifts, as box sets always do, into ‘fans only’ territory. Of course, that’s fair enough because it’s only the obsessive fans that will splash the cash to own this kind of set. But is it really worth splashing out all that money to re-buy most of the material you already own to get a hold of a bunch of outtakes and rarities that you may have already tracked down and collated elsewhere? Well, only you can answer that question but what I can say is this, the overall package is fantastic and, let’s face it, you can always flog your old CDs and DVDs down the charity shop, or, here’s a better idea, give them away to a friend and introduce somebody else to this remarkable artist. That way, you’ll still have everything you love, with a bit extra and a nice red velvet box you need to find space for.
The Rufus Rarities disc is quite interesting. The opening track, Money Song, recorded in 1994 is remarkable simply because it sounds absolutely nothing like him but its incredible to think that this set of songs are ‘cast offs’, so to speak. The quality of them is quite impressive. Ups and Downs is a delightful number, for example that snakes and shuffles its way under your skin with its pleasing, toe tapping tempo and almost creole blues like instrumentation. You’ve just got to love the banjo picking on St James Infirmary and In With The Ladies sounds like a contender for the next Bond theme song. This disc is well worth getting to know.
Disc 17. Rufus at the Movies
A collection of songs Rufus has provided for movie soundtracks this is a bit of a ramshackle collection. Most people will be familiar with his cover of Hallelujah and his take on Across the Universe isn’t half bad but the real standout here is The Maker Makes, which those who searched round the extras menu on All I Want (or have watched borkeback mountain) will be familiar with. This disc is by no means essential, but it’s fun to dip in and out of once in a while.
Disc 18. Rufus Family and Friends
Part family get together, part mutual back scratching session, this disc whiffs of ego and pride, in all its forms. When it works best, (What’ll I Do), it’s incredible. At its worst, it’s a giggle to hear some of your favourite artists collaborate (Casanova in Hell with the Pet Shop Boys). There’s a hell of a lot of talent on this disc but it rarely stands up with their best individual works. But who cares? It’s a lot of fun and if you can’t enjoy his Latin take on Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows or the ever so preposterous Au Fond Du Temple Saint duet with David Byrne then I simply have no time for you.
Disc 19. Rufus Original Demos
Now this is interesting! This is a copy of the original 1995 demo cassette that Loudon Wainwright III famously passed on to Van Dyke Parks, which then made its way to the guys at the Dreamworks record label and then, well, everything we’ve just ploughed our way through happened.
In other words, the box set ends back at the beginning. It’s a fascinating listen. Not only do you get a handful of songs that made their way onto the debut album but you get a sultry version of Cole Porter’s Get Out Of Town and Schubert’s Sweet Repose. Even back then, he was thinking big.
At the end of the day (or week, as I should say as it’s taken me that long to truly work my way through this set) there’s only one question that needs to be answered. Is this box set worth the money? Absolutely. It’s a fantastic package, representing a catalogue of material unlike anything else. Of course, if you’re simply looking to dip your toe in the water, so to speak, then you can’t go far wrong with the debut album if you want to follow the story properly. Honestly though, you can’t look further than Want One. It’s such a powerful, confident and deeply personal record that’s surely destined to be thought of as a classic, if it isn’t already.
So there you go. Velvet, glamour and guilt. Empty your pockets, indulge yourself in the back catalogue of this incredible artist and let some colour into your life.