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Rufus Wainwright – The Anvil, Basingstoke – 21.06.18

It’s a night of firsts — the first time I’ve ever been (or wanted to go) to Basingstoke, the first time I’ve ever seen a major international artist choose Basingstoke to start their UK tour (I’m yet to understand why), and the first time I’ve ever seen an artist arrive on stage on time…

It seems that Rufus hasn’t ever been to Basingstoke either, as he saunters on stage with his first words to us: “I have no idea where I am! It’s the jet lag… it’s great to be here”. He’s wearing a golden shimmery outfit lent to him by a friend, designed by Vivienne Westwood’s son “who I can’t remember the name of” — nothing could be more Rufus Wainwright, and the crowd laughs, but we’re all quietly worried he forgets the words to his early hits, which he reminds us started 20 years ago with the release of his debut album. Jet lag be damned.

With only myself, my friend and a few select well-preened young men in the audience keeping the average age this side of 50, Rufus does an effortless job of being the traditional showman for the oldies, and just a little risqué for those of us young enough to be slightly perturbed by the “strictly no mobile phones” signs up everywhere. But there’s something nice about the intimacy of us being in complete darkness, no phone glow, in the moment with our sparkly musical hero, and the one guy that breaks the rule at the front learns just how quick a retiree can move to intercept, and soon reluctantly joins the rest of us and our phone-less hands.

He explains “This is a turkey dinner of tours — tonight we’re basting the turkey” — that tonight is the pre-amble, and he lets us in on newly announced plans to play the Royal Albert Hall for his All These Poses tour (cooking the turkey), and hints at a new album release upcoming (devouring the turkey). In any other context, from any other artist, I’d feel shortchanged; but the moment he sits at the piano and picks out the intro of Beauty Mark, it’s clear you’re in the hands of a master chef and you’ve never felt so much like having a good basting.

We’re treated to two new songs from the upcoming album, one about marriage: “it’s actually a happy song!”, and the other about hangovers — the latter reaffirms his place as a sophisticated and complex songwriter, feels like a return to earlier Wainwright (after 2012’s relatively pop-centric Out of the Game), and also hits notes that would probably give Adele nodules and Mariah a nervous breakdown these days.

Classics are a-plenty, and seeing some tracks live that I previously skipped on my iPhone educated me that I should never have taken Wainwright so lightly (I’m now obsessed with The Art Teacher). Some tracks even remind us of how controversial he can be, accompanied by anecdotes like Gay Messiah: “I saw a 10 year old boy in the audience staring up at me, so I panicked and changed the words ‘baptised in cum’ to ‘baptised in gummy bears’ — so I leave the venue and waiting outside the stage door is the 10 year old boy, except I get closer and it was actually a 37 year old lesbian!”.

It also wouldn’t be a proper live gig in 2018 without a reference to Donald Trump, and Wainwright doesn’t disappoint: he quips “we’ve gotta get Trump out” before launching into scathing America-skeptic anthem Going to a Town. The good people of Basingstoke agree and cheer loudly — watch your back in Hampshire, Trump…

It’s clear that Wainwright is more comfortable at a piano than behind a guitar, and the musical subtlety comes out much more behind his Steinway; there are points that the guitar up-numbers feel awkward in such a traditional auditorium (there’s not enough leg room to stomp your foot along with him), but the gentleman behind me battles on nonetheless, singing along completely out of tune for the remainder of the concert — special mention to you, sir. Despite select audience members’ attempts to duet with him, this remains a completely solo gig and it’s clear that his showmanship, vocal ability and songwriting carry that off in a way that I’m not sure many artists around at the moment could manage.

All in all, to see Rufus Wainwright live gives you humour, musical beauty and vocal moments that raise the hairs on your arms — and if this is him solo in an insignificant town in Hampshire (sorry Basingstoke), then you absolutely have to keep your eye out for that Royal Albert Hall full band gig ticket sale.

Tour Announcements happen on his website here.

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