Back in the 1970s, when Oldies but Goodies concerts were the rage in the US, singer Rick Nelson poured scorn on the concept in his song Garden Party: “If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck”. By contrast, last night’s Rufus Wainwright Proms deliberately had the feel of him singing memories. Part of the Want Symphonic tour, they marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Wainwright’s albums Want One and Want Two. Why is he doing Want again now? Difficult to know, but the fans were clearly up for it.
There was a Prom for Want One, followed by another for Want Two: I saw the first, which followed the album’s original order, as if this was some kind of historical re-creation. But it wasn’t: the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Sarah Hicks added a dimension not there 20 years ago, and it wasn’t always an enrichment. Loud amplification had the paradoxical effect of smudging orchestral details, although some attractive touches, notably in the wind section, penetrated the murk.
An uncredited overture opened the concert; then, wearing what looked like jester’s tights, Wainwright ambled onstage to the accompaniment of the galumphing tuba that ushers in Oh What a World. The audience welcome verged on the ecstatic.
It’s a wonderful song, its wit and emotional precision beyond the reach of most contemporary composers; incorporating fragments of Ravel’s Bolero is a touch of sly genius. Wainwright stuck close to the original, nicely pausing the musical line on the words “Straight men” while holding his palms out to invite applause, readily given.
For this listener, that song is easily the richest on Want One. Perhaps it would have been wise to delay it but following the album sequence made that impossible. Still, the audience wasn’t complaining. Sometimes singing with his own guitar or piano accompaniment, he showed that his voice remains in excellent shape, as was his genial chatter: at one point, he gave a salesman’s pitch for Wainwright merchandise; far from being offensive, it was amusing.
There were no formal singalongs but there was plenty of attentive lip-synching from the fans: this really was like a Greatest Hits package. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t help feeling that Wainwright’s considerable talent is better suited to a more intimate setting, a smaller orchestra and less blaring amplification. The standing ovation suggested the Albert Hall audience thought otherwise.
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