Jamie Tabberer

Pop maths - Rufus Wainwright

Rufus singing Judy Garland covers + Martha = Mean Girls quote ("Too gay to function.")

We donned our blazers and hit London's Royal Opera House yesterday for Rufus Does Judy! the first of Rufus Wainwright's five-night residency at the iconic venue with throughly mixed expectations. I mean, we adore the man but why Rufus? Yes, he's an opera-lover and writer, but why should such an honour be bestowed on him before anyone else? Before, say, a British artist? Was it simply because Rufus had the audacity to accept the offer and take the risk? Would that be arrogance or bravery?

And singing Judy Garland covers no less: a thankfully shorter take on his infamous Rufus Does Judy! tour in which he channeled the Wizard of Oz star's legendary Carnegie Hall performance, a move that was considered cheeky at the time, never mind now, a handful of years later. His new retrospective CD collection, narcissistically named House of Rufus and comprised of 19 discs, also hints at some level of arrogance, does it not? NINE. TEEN. DISCS. That's excessive even by Madonna's standards.

But thank god, in this instance two hours and over 20 songs of nonstop warbling goes down surprisingly easily. He gets away with it, of course he does. Despite the grandeur of the ROH and the showmanship Judy's back catalogue demands, not to mention Rufus's unpredictability as a performer, the set was surprisingly intimate and understated - there's no arrogance to be found here. Who'd have thought it? The most shocking and/or attention-seeking moment of the evening was Martha Wainwright's zebra catsuit, but more about her later. Rufus, dressed conservatively by his standards, gave a highly controlled vocal performance, in contrast to his Winehouse-seque staggering about (and at the ROH no less! *clutches pearls*) and the endearing moments of shy, off-the-cuff campery (god knows why, but a story about a trip to Selfridges was rapturously received) in between songs.

His focus was especially commendable on opening number When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You) before wavering charmingly on Do It Again, the only time the gruff-voiced Rufus braves the same key as Judy. Indeed, his gravelly, arguably masculine tones and distinct Canadian accent render comparisons with Garland entirely pointless. That he doesn't completely queen out and imitate her is an intelligent move on his part; if he had this foray would've fallen flat. Despite longing, frequent references to the never forgotten star and the utter commitment to a well-trodden blueprint, Rufus's performance and similarly the 2007 live album its linked to represent a separate, standalone body of work. His take on Over the Rainbow, for instance, is a jarring departure from the norm - in exchange for sweetness and light Rufus sings like the damaged adult he claims himself to be (he said as much in a moment of self-mockery last night): his voice at once coarse and velvety, and always, always heartbreaking; a voice surely every gay man relates to to some extent?

Interesting, then that his equally talented sister and the evening's special guest Martha Wainwright took a different line. Although dressed as herself, I wouldn't say she sang as herself. On her bluesy rendition of Stormy Weather she seemed to channel Judy's ghost. Her performance was absolutely note-perfect, stirringly powerful and harked back to an era many a female vocalist has all but parodied in the last few years. It was astonishing, and yes, it cast her brother's rough around the edges style in a new light. To say she upstaged him, though, is nonsense. It's clear they've been routinely upstaging each other for years with tongues firmly in cheek. These two aren't competing. And seeing them embrace was perhaps the evening's most tender moment.

I suspect the remaining four nights of Rufus's stay - including a performance with his father Loudon Wainwright on Wednesday and another Judy geek-fest on Thursday - will exude similar warmth.

Visit for tickets.

Buy House of Rufus at by clicking here.

Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden,

Words: Jamie Tabberer

Photo: Matthias Clame

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