Review: Rufus Wainwright makes magic from melancholy at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater

The singer-songwriter dedicated music to the victims of Wednesday's high school shooting in South Florida.
Published Feb. 15, 2018|Updated Feb. 16, 2018

It wasn't Carnegie Hall; it wasn't even Milwaukee. But for a certain kind of lover, there was no finer place to spend Valentine's night than the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.

"What a wonderful little town," said Rufus Wainwright, playing his first Tampa Bay show since 2001. "Today I swam in the gulf for the first time. So I'm one of you."

Equally engulfed in bliss were the 650 fans treated to 90 minutes of Wainwright's spellbinding voice, a rich, sonorous croon that would've melted even the chalkiest candy heart.

And never did Wainwright's gift for weaving hope and romance into melancholy feel more necessary than it did Tuesday night in Florida.

"It's a little depressing tonight because of what's happening in Parkland," said the Montreal-bred singer-songwriter, referencing Wednesday's South Florida high school shooting that left at least 17 dead and 15 more injured. "All of our thoughts, and all of the music tonight, is for America, and really all of us. Because it's really too much."

MORE: 17 dead, 15 wounded, former student in custody after Broward school shooting

Twice again would he reference the shooting. He dedicated the a cappella Candles, a song written for his late mother Kate McGarrigle, to the victims. And on Going to a Town, when he got to the line, "I'm so tired of America," he harrumphed off an acidic aside: "No s—."

So no, it wasn't a typical Valentine's Day love-in, the sort you might've gotten across town at Andrea Bocelli. But that was part of the appeal of this show in the first place.

At 44, with closer-cropped hair and a beard more salty than peppery, Wainwright better than ever looks the part of the wry troubadour, especially when he steps away from his piano and strums an acoustic like a busker – a bit like his old man Loudon Wainwright III, perhaps, or his daughter's grandfather Leonard Cohen, especially when covering So Long Marianne.

But his velvety voice has aged marvelously. Nary a note landed foul as Wainwright shifted between songs that felt jaunty (opener Beauty Mark) and playful (a few flourishes on Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk) and intimate  (When Most I Wink [Sonnet 43] and Sonnet 20, both inspired by Shakespeare).

Wainwright walked the audience through the scope of his virtuosity, performing the aria Les feux d'artifice t'appellent from his first opera Prima Donna; and detailing his second, Hadrian, which premieres in Toronto this fall. On the personal Montauk, his fingers frisked and flowed across the keys, sending the music tumbling out in waves. Conversely, he played Vibrate with only one hand, eyes closed, tilting back from the keys and sustaining until he drew applause.

With no backing band, many songs had a dreamlike quality, floating weightlessly in the theater as Wainwright pulled and stretched his lyrics around each note. Even when his voice scaled up and spiked through the reverb on Gay Messiah, it hit its marks. And his signature take on Cohen's Hallelujah – arguably the best of the song's countless renditions over the years – was breathtaking.

Hallelujah aside, Wainwright left a few other well-known songs off the setlist, including California and April Fools. The latter omission was curious, given the song's specific reference to Valentine's Day. But Wainwright made up for it by performing an unreleased song, Only the People that Love, that offered a more ambivalent take on finding The One.

"All I'm trying to say is that if you aren't in love, it's fine," he said.

Maybe you swooned, maybe you didn't. Emotionally speaking, Wednesday was kind of a complex day. But by the time the night ended with deep bows and fluttering bye-byes, the room was awash in the feels. You have to love Wainwright for that.

— Jay Cridlin