Rufus Wainwright - Paradiso, Amsterdam - 23/03/2005

I've never felt under-dressed at a gig before, but there's a first time for everything I suppose.



It all began with an answer machine message. No, seriously, it did. The house lights went down, the crowd stopped chatting, (well, some of them) and turned towards the darkened stage and the first noise to come out of the PA was a recorded answer machine message about some poor woman who's fucked up her ankle. There were a few titters from the crowd but the general response was something along the lines of, "What the bloody hell is this all about?" As an intro it was interesting, if rather bewildering and then, well, it all got a bit preposterous from then on. In a good way.


After sneaking on stage in the gloom, Rufus sat at the piano and began to sing. As an opening to a concert, Agnus Dei will take some beating. It's hardly a simple rock and roll tune, but this is Rufus Wainwright I'm talking about, so if there was anybody in the room wanting to hear some standard three chord rock and roll then they very quickly realized that they were in the wrong room. Before the lights warmed up Rufus's voice called us all to prayer. Cloaked in darkness his voice cast a spell over everybody, commanding attention and breaking every single conversation in the room apart. It was mesmerizing.


The lights rose half way through, to reveal the full six piece band and when the track finally came to a close the crowd applauded loudly, if still shocked by just how powerful an opening that was. Due to my position in the crowd I didn't get a chance to check out Rufus' attire until he strode up to the front and grabbed the microphone for Crumb by Crumb. He resembled, for all the world, a very effeminate Cliff Richard (explain the difference - ed). He was dressed smartly, in the type of beautiful suit that only a flamboyant, good looking gay man like himself could pull off. It was a stunning black velvet number (at least I think it was velvet?) and his brilliant white shirt, unbuttoned down to his midriff, sported large cuffs and a collar with a wingspan wider than an Albatross. He looked fantastic. Unfortunately, the tickets didn't say 'black tie event' on them so the crowd, dressed largely in t-shirts and jeans, let the side down somewhat. I've never felt under-dressed at a gig before, but there's a first time for everything I suppose.


After milking some more applause Rufus welcomed us all to the show and then started talking about Dutch clog dancing and how happy he was to have left England, before treating us all to a stupendous version of Peach Trees. He followed that with Hometown Waltz and a sublime Vibrate, which showed just how stunning his voice really is. It's a brilliant instrument in its own right and we may as well have been listening to the record, his vocal control was that good. I've seen many an artist on stage and I've seen many a great gig, but I don't think I've ever heard somebody sing live on stage who sounded as impressive as they do on record as Rufus does.


Before I sound like I'm getting a little too carried away (which I'm not) I did have the occasional problem with the show, and most of them had to do with whenever he was left at the piano alone. He introduced The Art Teacher with a nice little quip, "This next song....well, I wrote it," and it was absolutely stunning until he messed up the last verse and unfortunately that wasn't the only time. As Rufus said himself, "Well I'm only human," but it reminded me of his show here last year, when he played solo upstairs in the Kleine Zaal. Whilst that gig was good, it was also very frustrating because he kept messing up, on nearly every song. Normally that wouldn't bother me so much, but the problem with Rufus is that he does it a little too often and it just pulls you out of the song.


That was the problem here. The Art Teacher was fantastic and I was utterly captivated by it; until he fumbled that last verse. Suddenly the spell was broken and I realized that I was simply in a room watching a man at a piano, whereas beforehand I was somewhere else entirely. Somewhere magical. (The same feelings would return to me later during Beauty Mark and Little Sister.) He followed that with This Love Affair, which was notable for the fact that, even when the song was at its most delicate, with piano, voice and lots of space in between, the Paradiso crowd were silent. SILENT! The only noises to be heard from the room itself were the clinking and clashing noises from the bar. I've never been in the Paradiso where a crowd have been so attentive, so...reverential. Yes, that's the word, reverential. I really felt like I was witnessing something truly special as he sang This Love Affair and as Rufus strutted his way through The One You Love, a song he described as "about being a slut," I just had to dance along with him.



He dedicated what may well become his own personal anthem, Gay Messiah to the late Pope John Paul II. "I dedicated this song to him when he was alive, so I may as well dedicate it to him now that he's dead." I doubt the old fella would have approved but everybody in the Paradiso loved it. We were all in awe of the man. Following the Wainwright approach to writing songs, we were then treated to a song about his family, Want was truly magnificent. "I just wanna be my Dad" he sang with such clarity of emotion that it actually hurt to hear and when he sang, "I don't want to know the answer to any of your questions," you simply had to empathise with him. It was a truly wonderful performance, but it was whilst listening to this that I realized what was missing from the gig. The audience.


Rufus' music is simply too clever, too elaborate and his voice is so impressive that the average yokel in the crowd simply can't join in. You can't exactly sing along to Agnus Dei now can you? Unless you too have the voice of an angel, or a Gay Messiah. I had to applaud the guy, he really is a remarkable talent, but this was beginning to feel more like a theatre performance than a gig.


All of my petty criticisms quickly evaporated though as Rufus slung a guitar over his shoulder and said, "This song used to be at the end of my shows, but now it's in the middle," and kicked into Beautiful Child which was mind blowing. Beautiful Child is my favourite Rufus Wainwright song by far and the one track of his that I've listened to more than any other but even I was blown away by it here. I had shivers down my spine as it began and with Rufus, who was on top form yet again, supported by four guitars, two female backing singers wailing like banshees and a drummer that was sporting a rather large pair of earmuffs the song simply took my breath away. It was awesome.


I have to admit that the next song, Memphis Skyline just passed me by in a blur and I was starting to worry that the gig had peaked too soon. Surely he couldn't top Beautiful Child? Thankfully Rufus pulled myself and the rest of the crowd out of our reverential state by slinging a couple of cover versions into the running order. This allowed the crowd to loosen up a little and provided the thing that I'd been missing earlier in the night, audience participation. If Rufus could sing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and Lennon and McCartney's Across the Universe, then so could we! Both covers were fantastic, especially the spine tingling Hallelujah.


We were treated to another selection of Wainwright family history next. Beauty Mark was dedicated to his mother and Little Sister to Martha with the following, rather unsettling confession, "Every day I wake up and thank God I'm homosexual. Because my sister's so sexy, if I was straight I'd really want to fuck her." The family circle was complete with Dinner at Eight, a song about his father, "And no I don't want to have sex with him......Well, maybe when he was younger."


Dinner at Eight was fantastic, Rufus flung his head back and forth so far he began to resemble a Pez dispenser, the sound of violins swept round the room, the drummer rumbled the floorboards underneath my feet by utilising those hefty drumsticks that look like they've got large marshmallows on the end of them and the electric bass helped provide a slow menace to the tune itself. Stunning.


Old diehard Rufus fans were treated to a version of Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, complete with banjo, that was so impressive and overwhelming that a couple of girls in front of me burst into floods of tears. 14th Street allowed them, and us, to regain a bit of composure. "Why did you have to break all my heart?" pleaded Rufus and we pleaded right along with him. He strutted his way through the tune with a camp two step routine that looked fantastic, but again it was something that only a flamboyant homosexual like himself could pull off and still manage to look cool. If I were to do it I'd look like the embarrassing uncle at a wedding! The band left the stage one by one, leaving Rufus alone at the microphone to say goodnight. This WAS a piece of theatre and, in that fashion, as he left he was treated to a standing ovation from an elated audience. (OK, the majority of the crowd had been standing all night, but those on the balcony all rose up to applaud him so I think the phrase is justified.)


They returned for the encore and Rufus strode up to the microphone with a mischievous look in his eyes. As the band struck up Old Whore's Diet Bill, my Incendiary colleague, exclaimed "Oh fuck off Rufus! How's he going to pull this off?" Old Whore's Diet is one of the more elaborate and pretentious songs on Rufus's latest album, Want Two, and because this is Rufus we're talking about that means it's really pretentious and really elaborate and I have to admit that even I was wondering how the hell he could get this song to work live? By playing the fool, that's how.



It started off rather simple, or at least, simple as far as this song is concerned but before long that mischievous look in his eye turned into a cheeky grin and as he started the repeats of "Oh, gets me going in the morning," he unbuttoned his jacket and began an elaborate strip tease routine that saw him discard the beautiful black suit and end up sporting a blue sparkly g-string, a sparkling tiara and a Miss Amsterdam 2005 sash. The entire band stripped off too, the men down to little g-strings and the ladies down to some very sexy lacy numbers. Well that certainly got the crowd going. It almost lifted the roof off!


The stunning opener to the Want One album, Oh What A World followed and the props kept coming. The tiara was traded for a black witches hat, some red and white stripey socks and pair of glittering red ruby slippers and as the song melted from it's Bolero stylings into the refrain from Somewhere Over The Rainbow Rufus and the band melted to the floor, like Wicked Witches of the West, the lights dimmed into darkness and the crowd, quite literally, went beserk!



When the lights were lifted once again, the band were sporting bath robes, which strangely I found to be the most alluring and sexy of all their costumes and, when all the clapping and cheering eventually finished, they treated us to a rather jaunty and celebratory version of I Don't Know What It Is. They left the stage to even more excited applause and returned once more to play us out with California which sent certain sections of the crowd into complete rapture.


I don't know what it is that makes a gig feel truly special, but this one had it. I don't know what it is that makes music touch the parts of your heart, mind and soul that other art forms can't reach, but Rufus knows how to press all those buttons and I don't know what it is that makes a star, but Rufus has it in spades and his is a star that is currently shining very bright indeed. Now then, don't you wish that you'd been there?



Words and Photographs : Damian Leslie