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Early last month, a host of show-biz notables gathered at Radio City Music Hall for a TV tribute to John Lennon.
Besides proving that Kevin Spacey can carry a tune (his faithful "Mind Games" was spirited, if a bit jarring), the show was a reminder that the work of a great artist is usually best left to that artist. But between the tunelessness of Lou Reed's "Jealous Guy" and the decaffeinated funk of Dave Stewart and Nelly Furtado's "Instant Karma," there was a moment of real transcendence.
Joined by Sean Lennon and Moby (one of whom inherited Yoko's pipes, and one of whom should stick to sampling other people's), 27-year-old singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright let fly with a gorgeous acoustic rendering of "Across the Universe." It was the one performance of the night that actually bested the original version of the song, and when he and Lennon returned near the end of the show and pulled the same magic out of "This Boy," there could be no doubt who had stolen the show.
Most likely, the performance will prove to be nothing more than a footnote in a long, brilliant career for Wainwright, but it helped him make an important point at a crucial time. Ever since the American-born, Canadian-raised Wainwright released his outstanding, self-titled 1998 debut album, he's been saddled with the burden of carrying on a pop-music tradition stretching back to Stephen Foster, and including the likes of Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman.
In such heavily orchestrated, expertly constructed compositions as "Foolish Love," "Beauty Mark" and "Matinee Idol," critics heard someone who was a throwback to a time when Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths spent long hours churning out romantic gems for the musical theater. Wainwright's songs sounded like they belonged in a musical, all right, just some idiosyncratic musical running around in his own head -- the kind where people break into songs about elite boarding schools, one-night stands with junkies, and the tragedy of not getting same-sex action at a Valentine's Day kissing booth.
Wainwright, the spawn of smart-ass folkie songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and folkie songbird Kate McGarrigle, didn't mind the comparisons at first. After all, the great American songbook had almost literally been his mother's milk, material that he and the rest of the family would sing around a parlor piano in Montreal. But being seen as anachronistic, even if it's an anachronistic genius, can get tiresome if -- like Wainwright -- you're still in your 20s and if -- like Wainwright -- you're ambitious and cocky enough to believe you should be on the radio, having your songs crooned by the masses.
The Lennon tribute show put Wainwright in a different context, and spotlighted what a remarkable and versatile singer he is: operatic, yet eccentrically nasal, blessed with an impossibly rich tone at even the lowest vocal registers.
"I'd never done anything of that magnitude, per se, live on television before, so it was certainly a rush. And I plan to do it as many times as I can," he says with a laugh. "What was cool about it is that for a lot of people to understand what I do, it's good for them to actually see me do it. What I liked about it was that I thought my stuff stood up next to the other stuff. It was encouraging."
Wainwright's bond with Sean goes back to the summer of '98, when Lennon heard Wainwright's solo debut and insisted that they tour together. Although Lennon was the tour headliner, when the tour reached Canada, he volunteered to be Wainwright's opening act. "I think everybody was still there to see him, but he somehow thought that people knew me like I was a big Canadian star or something," Wainwright says.
Children of celebrities (although Wainwright's parents were admittedly a bit less famous than Lennon's), and products of musical families, Wainwright and Lennon shared the strange bond that comes from having the people who changed your diapers for musical influences.
"Recently, it was Sean's birthday, which of course was also his father's birthday," Wainwright says. "We were hanging out late at night, and we just listened to some of his dad's stuff. It was quite moving and revealing, because I could see him listening to his father's music and see a similar reaction that I have when I listen to either my father or my mother's music. That is, you're almost listening to a part of yourself."
As part of Wainwright's effort to be seen as a contemporary artist, for his latest record, Poses,he and producer Pierre Marchand toned down the string sections and tightened up the grooves. Wainwright's DreamWorks labelmate Alex Gifford, of techno act Propellerheads, produced and played most of the instruments on the mildly danceable "Shadows," and Wainwright allowed the record's signature tune, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," to recur at the end of the record with a funkier mix.
"Pierre and I thought it was important that with this record I not get pegged only as the piano-playing Americana guy, because innately what I'd like to establish in any case is that I'm a really good singer," Wainwright says. "And that I'm a really good pop singer, too. And that I can sort of go out and there and, whatever, groove. In some way or capacity."