I’ve been fortunate enough to see Rufus Wainwright play live many times over the years in many different places, from a sparsely populated Lowry Centre in Salford with his mum and aunt (Kate and Anna McGarrigle) before he became properly famous, to the opulence of a packed London Palladium during his Judy Garland phase. Sometimes with a band, sometimes solo, occasionally – as at the Palladium – with a full symphony orchestra.
But never anywhere or anything like this: Coventry Cathedral and the voice of Rufus Wainwright, on this evidence, are a match made in Heaven.
Having already completed a set opening for Kris Kristofferson at Kenwood House the same evening and arriving in Coventry by helicopter – a mode of transport more suited to a rock star than Rufus Wainwright – the event already had an unusual air about it.
Even more unusual to see the headline act being introduced to the audience by the Dean of Coventry Cathedral. One could only wonder what the holy gentleman would make of some of the lyrics he was about to hear. At least he pronounced the headliner’s name right, unlike he had with the support act Nerina Pallot, who would later gently mention during her set that the ‘t’ is silent.
Any fears that Rufus might be worn out by his earlier performance were quickly dispelled. That incredible voice sounded as strong as ever, already warmed up enough to tackle the long note at the end of ‘Vibrate’ as early as second song in.
Performing solo, alternating between piano and acoustic guitar, you hear the songs in their purest – and arguably their best – form.
A selection of new material peppered the more familiar favourites but there was no shuffling to the toilets during these moments. Partly because the temporary event toilets were outside the building – Cathedrals aren’t built with such earthly concerns in mind. Neither are Rufus sets. The new songs sit effortlessly alongside the older material. Who could resist introductions like ‘this is an upbeat song about marriage… and death’. It just leaves you looking forward to their eventual release on record (I know, other formats are available).
The big question was, would he do ‘that song’ here of all places? You know, that song.
Well, yes he did. Of course he did. ‘Gay Messiah’ was preceded by an amusing tale of the infamy it earned him while performing in Italy, and then interrupted half way through by a pause and a glance back towards the enormous mural of Jesus painted on the wall behind the impromptu stage area as we were reminded, “It’s not about him!”
That may have been for the benefit of the Dean, if he wasn’t already outside protesting about the concert he had himself just recently introduced.
Taking advantage of the venue and testing its acoustics to the full, Rufus treated us to a stunning, completely acapella version of ‘Candles’, no accompaniment, no amplification, just note perfect from beginning to end.
Finishing the regular set with ‘Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk’ to a deserved standing ovation, the encore began with a hauntingly pure version of ‘Going To A Town’ – written and released over a decade ago as a protest aimed at a previous US President but finding new impetus as a rallying cry against the American nightmare that is Donald Trump.
The second Leonard Cohen cover of the night, ‘Hallelujah’ followed (the first Cohen number having being a memorable ‘So Long, Marianne’ in the main set) before this extraordinary concert wrapped with the iconic ‘Poses’, and the promise of a 20th anniversary tour in 2019.