Nearly everyone in the Wainwright family writes and performs songs, often about each other. So when one of them passes away, one of the stages of grief is to write an album about the loss. Loudon Wainwright III, the patriarch of this postmodern Carter family, reflected on the death of each of his parents in an album each (1992's "History" after Loudon Wainwright Jr. died, 2001's "Last Man on Earth" after his mother died).
Friday night, two of Loudon's kids were on stage at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Daughter Martha Wainwright opened the show with her powerful anti-love songs, and she acknowledged the new grief hanging over the family following the death of their mother (Loudon's ex-wife), Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle. "My songs are already pretty depressing," Martha said, promising she wouldn't be delivering any songs about the loss of her mother. "I don't want to subject you to what might come out now."
Rufus Wainwright, however, though he might rankle at this suggestion, is more his father's son than he realizes. He has no qualms about laying bare his grief and despair before a paying audience, though he's usually less direct, and the first act of Friday night's concert was a highly artistic, touring funeral service.
Before Wainwright arrived on stage, the theater audience was instructed that this first act would be presented as a song cycle -- no applause until the very end, please. (This announcement came before everyone was in their seats, however, so a few enthusiastic latecomers were confused and possibly mortified when they clapped and hooted after the first song, and were shushed.) Wainwright then entered the stage, backlit, walking one step at a time and dragging a 17-foot black train mounted with feathered shoulders, designed by Zaldy Goco, a costumer for Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, among others. He lowered himself at the piano with somber face and began playing the entirety of his new album, "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu."
An album of complex solo piano songs, "All Days Are Nights" has a smartly sequenced ebb and flow and thus succeeds in a beginning-to-end presentation. The accessible pop of the first few, however, gives way to some fairly complex playing, which during "The Dream" became so technical Wainwright lost focus on his singing. His notorious tenor, almost all sinuses, requires focus even when he's not running up and down the keyboard, but the occasional dissonance between the two heightened a sense of unease -- even moreso than the sleepy blinking eyes hovering over him, video visuals courtesy Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.
Except for the three Shakespeare sonnets in the middle (momentum killers, all three), many of these songs are infused with just such unease, with restless thoughts and grief, written as they were in the months that McGarrigle's cancer worsened (and after he completed work on his first, semi-acclaimed opera, "Prima Donna"). The musical answering machine messages about her declining condition in "Martha" are briefly combated with the spirited lashing out and jaunty parlor piano of "Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now." It all marches toward the end, with "Zebulon," another song that mentions his mother's illness -- but one that she liked so much that Wainwright played it at her funeral. Friday night, he clanged the song's chords slowly, slowly, like mournful church bells, and hesitated in the last lyric, "We'll have some tea and ice cream," just enough to transform it into: "We'll have some tea, and I ... scream." Then the processional, in retreat.
The second act, with Wainwright back and smiling, fresh and plucky in a peach-colored patterned suit, was a life-saver. Now he played as he did in the first fumbling years of his career, as a saloon singer, banging out grand, sweeping tunes on a piano and telling the occasional amusing story. But this set was suffused with loss in its own way, including "Memphis Skyline," a song he wrote about the death of singer Jeff Buckley, and his old stand-by, the hymn-like cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
And like those creepy blinking eyes, McGarrigle was watching over this set, too, a song cycle of its own that opened with "Beauty Mark," a song celebrating McGarrigle from Wainwright's acclaimed self-titled debut CD, and ended with one of McGarrigle's own tunes, "The Walking Song." Introducing the latter, Wainwright spoke of his mother for the first time, thanking fans for their outpouring of support and referring to his current circumstance as "a very treacherous game of life." The song nears its end with, "We'll talk blood and how we were bred / talk about the folks both living and dead / This song like this walk I find hard to end."
Wainwright has filled his career with tributes to things he says he misses, though often they're things he was barely around to experience, anyway -- the Judy Garland concerts at Carnegie, a heyday of opera, even Buckley, with whom he spent just a few hours. He falls in love with the hindsight of them, and his yearning is similarly rose-tinted. The loss of his mother, though, is a stark experience he sees clearly and is working out the only way a Wainwright, not so much a McGarrigle, knows how. As such, his grief feels less shared than inflicted, but this concert seemed to marry his dreams and realities in slightly pretentious but exciting new ways. Bring on a new opera.
Martha's opening set cannot go unmentioned. She appeared onstage five minutes early, grabbing her guitar and launching into an example of her own, serrated approach to baring her heart in song, "Bleeding All Over You." Like her brother, she overstylizes her singing so much that it's often difficult to understand her, but she possesses a voice so powerful that her Dolly Parton crescendos draw yelps and whoops despite the words. Thankfully, she included a few songs from her new, hard-to-find (but oh-so worth the dig) plainly titled CD, "Martha Wainwright's Edith Piaf Record," further proof that hearing her belt in any language is a treat. She received her own standing ovation.