Mien of the hour: In Clearwater, Rufus Wainwright offers solace and songs for a tortured, tired America

The multi-octaved singer-songwriter shone bright on a dark day for Florida.

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click to enlarge Rufus Wainwright, who played Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on February 14, 2018. - LivePict.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
LivePict.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Rufus Wainwright, who played Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on February 14, 2018.

Headed to Rufus Wainwright’s concert at the Capitol Theatre last night, I wondered:

One — would his extraordinary voice, with its multi-octave range and languid phrasing, still sound as good as it did when I saw him, oh, 20 years ago or so, when he was just hitting big?

Two — would the soigné gay troubadour still be striking poses, to crib the title of one of his most famous songs? Does he even sing “Poses” anymore?

Three — on this day — Valentine’s Day, the last day of his “February in Florida” tour — the worst school shooting in U.S. history had taken place just a few hundred miles away. I’d heard that after Obama’s election, Wainwright had changed the infamous line in his song “Goin’ to a Town” from “I’m so tired of America” to “I’m not tired of America.” Would he change it back?

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The answers?

One — yes, emphatically so. Though a slight rasp was evident here and there, to be expected at the end of a tour, he still wields great vocal power, soaring on the high notes and with a new richness in his low tones.

Two — no, and yes. Though he slouched onto the stage in sequined pinstripes, there was no hint of the tortured diva. He’s married now, to German arts impresario Jörn Weisbrodt, with a daughter Viva, the progeny of Wainwright and Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen (and given that Rufus is the son of Loudon Wainwright III and the late, great Kate McGarrigle, Viva has some killer musical genes). He’s never not been self-aware of his penchant for, well, “poses,” but now when he sings that song (and thankfully, he did, as one of three encores), he brings the reflective mien of an older, wiser man looking back at his flaming youth, as he does to newer songs like 2012’s “Out of the Game” from the album of the same name. And in “Montauk,” from that same album, he looks ahead, predicting how his daughter will regard her two dads as they age, a heart-rending plea to her both to protect them and let them go, as she inevitably will have to do — as he had to do with McGarrigle, whose death eight years ago at 63 was a devastating blow. His song “Candles” (which he sang, gorgeously, a cappella) was inspired, he told us, by his vain quest to light a candle for her in Montreal, only to find that “the churches were all out of candles.” He was finally able to do so in Paris at Notre Dame, where he finally understood why Montreal had come up short: “She was just waiting for a better venue.”

Three — yes, with a vengeance. He mentioned the shootings several times — in a brief verbal acknowledgment of “what happened today in Parkland,” and in his dedication of “Candles” to "victims and families." The song's refrain became an unmistakable lament: We’re all running out of candles; how many more Parklands can we endure? And when he finally sang “Comin’ to a Town” and landed on the last “I’m so tired of America,” he added “Noooo shit!” and brought his anger into a full-on attack on the piano keys that felt both necessary and cathartic.

I had wondered about Rufus. But I realized at the end of the concert that there had been no better place to be, no better entertainer to help us through, than Rufus Wainwright. His ethereal delivery of a gorgeous aria (in French) from his opera Prima Donna — one of two Wainwright operas being produced around the world this year — and his self-effacing humor as he plugged them; his exquisite settings of Shakespeare sonnets; the joy of reacquaintance with songs like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” from his first two albums (around which he’ll build a 20th anniversary tour this fall); and that sense that here was someone who is as bewildered and outraged by what’s been happening in this country as you are but is trying to make sense of it through his art — all that brought healing to a day both lovely and terrible.

Note to Capitol Theatre audiences: Did you not hear that the show started at 8 (which it did, exactly on time)? And did you never hear about visiting the restrooms before the show? Sheesh. Thanks, Rufus, for holding us in your spell for 90 minutes — despite the fact that the aisles during your performance were more heavily trafficked than Cleveland Street.

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