No discussion of popular music’s finest singers would make sense without including Rufus Wainwright. Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre, a sold-out crowd was reminded of that, as Wainwright reeled off one spectacular number after another in a nearly two-hour set that included many old favorites but quite a bit of new material as well.
In his first local show since the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival, Wainwright seemed very much at ease and happy to be in Texas, following dates in Dallas and Houston preceding the Austin show. An early joke that became a running theme was how he and his husband, traveling together on this jaunt, have eaten too much barbecue and too many donuts. "I am getting very fat," he shared, "and enjoying every moment of it."
Wainwright’s banter and stories were consistently engaging; at one point he even gave out a private cell phone number, explaining he’d set up a second phone specifically for fan interaction in the age of social media and nontraditional publicity ventures. But it was the songs, and especially that voice, which drew everyone to the theater.
At 46, Rufus is well beyond his late-1990s rise as a promising upstart following in the footsteps of his father, renowned songwriter Loudon Wainwright, and mother, Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle. His acclaimed initial albums, as it turned out, just scratched the surface of a wildly creative artist who has since written two operas and set Shakespeare sonnets to music.
Starting with older tracks "The Art Teacher" and "Vibrate" before moving on to material from 2012’s "Out of the Game" — his last album of original material before the new record that he said will be out in April 2020 — Wainwright began on piano before moving to acoustic guitar. He’s clearly a far better pianist than guitarist, but the switch helped vary the show’s pace and allowed Wainwright to step out from the physically limiting confines of the piano bench.
The show’s title, "Oh Solo Wainwright: An Evening With Rufus," was misleading on two fronts, but in ways that turned out to be positives. "An Evening With" generally is showbiz parlance for "no opening act," but in fact the concert did feature a 40-minute first set from E.B. the Younger, singer-songwriter Eric Pulido’s crew featuring members of North Texas bands Midlake and the Texas Gentlemen. And midway through Wainwright’s set, those five musicians returned to back him up on four newer numbers.
The band proved a great match for Wainwright’s recent material, which included two songs he’s released as singles in the past two years: "Trouble in Paradise," which surfaced a few weeks ago, and "Sword of Damocles," a politically themed tune from last year. Equally promising were "Damsel in Distress," which he said was inspired by Joni Mitchell, and "Only the People That Love." Counting the two new songs he’d played solo earlier — the rhythmic "Peaceful Afternoon" on guitar and the magnificently dramatic "Early Morning Madness" on piano — the six fresh tracks indicated Wainwright has returned his focus to songwriting with a vengeance.
After closing the main set with the "Out of the Game" highlight "Candles" — prefaced by a heartfelt but also humorous story about his late mother — and the 2001 "Poses" album highlight "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," Wainwright brought E.B. the Younger back out for the encore. The expected finale of "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen classic which Wainwright helped popularize with his version on the 2001 "Shrek" soundtrack, might be the song Wainwright always has to play. But there’s deep personal resonance too, as he now has an eight-year-old daughter with Cohen’s daughter Lorca. (Yes, he’s gay and has a husband; it’s complicated.)
But even more apropos in the moment was "Going to a Town," a song from his 2007 album "Release the Stars" with a daringly outspoken chorus: "I’m so tired of America." Written more than a decade ago, the personal-political song was about partly about how the United States "dominates the planet but is in peril of losing democracy," Wainwright said at the time. As he sang lyrics such as "You took advantage of a world that loved you well" with the backdrop of recent impeachment hearings still hovering, it couldn’t have been more timely.
E.B. the Younger’s opening set turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Joining Pulido in the ensemble were his Midlake bandmates Joey McClellan on guitar and McKenzie Smith on drums, with Texas Gentlemen members Daniel Creamer (now an Austinite, apparently) on keyboards and Scott Lee on bass. Material from the debut album "To Each His Own," relelased in March, proved a very good fit with Wainwright’s music, its indie-leaning folk-rock vibe spiked by a melodic adventurousness driven by Pulido’s engaging lead vocals.
RELATED: Our 2009 interview with Rufus Wainwright