Friday, June 16, 2006

he made me love him. i didnt want to do it... i didnt want to do it... he made me love him, i do yes i do....

Music Review
Rufus Wainwright Pays Tribute to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall

Published: June 16, 2006

Rufus Wainwright, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter and opera maven, last night at Carnegie Hall re-creating song by song Judy Garland's 1961 concert, which became the most beloved of all pre-rock concert albums.

They came to commune with a legend and to pay their respects to the singer channeling her. "They" would be the heavily gay, mostly male, mostly over-30 audience that sold out Carnegie Hall on Wednesday and Thursday evenings; the legend would be Judy Garland; and the gawky, flouncing pop shaman conjuring her would be Rufus Wainwright, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter and opera maven descended from folk-music royalty.

It doesn't matter that Mr. Wainwright sounds nothing like Garland or that his voice, an astringent drone with a quavering edge, uncertain intonation and slightly garbled diction, isn't half as good an instrument as Garland's. The spirit was there. At the very least, his loving song-by-song re-creation of Garland's brilliant concert of April 23, 1961, which became "Judy at Carnegie Hall," the most beloved of all prerock concert albums, was a fabulous stunt. Not even Madonna, pop music's ultimate provocateur, has attempted anything so ambitious.

What unfolded onstage Wednesday was a tour de force of politically empowering performance art in which a proudly gay male performer paid homage to the original and most durable gay icon in the crowded pantheon of pop divas. Accompanying him was a 36-piece orchestra conducted by Stephen Oremus playing the original 1961 arrangements, transposed several notes lower to suit Mr. Wainwright's voice.

The concert was a two-family affair, with Garland's clan represented by her daughter Lorna Luft, who arrived onstage late in the two-and-a-half-hour marathon to put her seal of approval on the project by joining Mr. Wainwright in a duet of "After You've Gone." (Garland's other daughter, Liza Minnelli, was conspicuously absent.)

Besides Rufus, the Wainwrights were represented by his sister, Martha, who brought down the house with a whooping and swooping "Stormy Weather"; and by his mother, Kate McGarrigle, who accompanied him on piano on "Over the Rainbow" and an encore of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" that is not on the Garland album.

Because Garland's stamina onstage was legendary, Mr. Wainwright's biggest challenge was to build and sustain the kind of electrical connection between performer and audience that, in Garland's case, approached a vampirish emotional symbiosis. In contrast to the go-for-broke emotional immediacy Garland churned up like a great actress, Mr. Wainwright is an arch bohemian dandy who is far too self-conscious to give himself heart and soul to standards he obviously admires, but finds technically daunting, and in many cases doesn't know that well.

But there are also deep similarities. Like Garland, Mr. Wainwright is a natural clown and showman who deftly turned his many little flubs into endearing comic bits of business. Like Garland, he is a witty storyteller with a keen sense of the absurd who is not afraid to make fun of himself. In one of many amusing anecdotes on Wednesday, he remembered his childhood identification with "The Wizard of Oz." On good days, he said, he imagined he was Dorothy, and on bad ones the Wicked Witch of the West.

Scattered through a concert, some of whose two-dozen-plus songs he hadn't fully memorized, were some memorable performances. Mr. Wainwright rode the famous bongo-propelled arrangement of "Come Rain or Come Shine" to glory. His tender, reflective "Over the Rainbow" evoked the vocal sound of Harry Nilsson's nearly forgotten 1973 album, "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night," one of the first records in which a rock singer broke ranks to gaze wistfully into the past. An eerie falsetto version of "Do It Again," in Garland's key, almost worked, except for some tonal slips. "The Trolley Song" elicited cheers. He also talked about the album that inspired the concert, citing "If Love Were All" as his favorite song in the set.

For those who came to worship, Mr. Wainwright could do no wrong. If there were no boos, an audience clearly primed to go crazy never exploded into cathartic pandemonium. Still, Mr. Wainwright's courage to stand as a surrogate for every Garland fan who ever gazed into the mirror and fantasized about stepping into her ruby slippers spoke for itself. Simply for doing it, he was a hero.