Wainwright, Rufus : New York Town Hall : 25 November

Fop idol brings his lush orchestral sound to the stage - and triumphs over dodgy backing band

[a]Rufus Wainwright[/a] thrives on contradiction. He’s an elegantly gay man with the face of a matinee idol and a well-documented predilection for crystal meth and

anonymous sex. He quotes Ravel’s Bolero, then name-checks John Lithgow. He’s made one of NME’s albums of the year and would be equally at ease tickling the keys at cocktail parties in crisp red Upper East Side libraries as he would playing the rakish troubadour at sweaty downtown bars. It should come as no surprise, then, that tonight’s performance is as excruciating as it is endearing.

The problem lies primarily with his band, who seem to exist chiefly to distract from the substance of [a]Rufus Wainwright[/a]’s songs. Arrangements that sound lush and sophisticated on record, teeming with choirs and horns and classical allusions, sound flat – lost in tinny drumming, drowned by the over-anxious backing vocals of [a]Rufus Wainwright[/a]’ sister Martha (for whom the act of singing is apparently arduous – she squirms as though a hot poker is hovering inches away from her ass). The effect is part Broadway and part dreadful college folk jam – you can’t help but wish that when his various backing musicians all fall to the floor in a mock faint, they’d just stay there.

[a]Rufus Wainwright[/a] is at his best alone – or with minimal accompaniment – at the piano. Only then do the songs resonate; as in ‘Dinner At Eight’, in which his distinctive nasal burr occasionally breaks into clear, keening falsetto.

It is [a]Rufus Wainwright[/a]’s acerbic wit, however, which supplies the show’s best moments. He prefaces the [a]Elvis Costello[/a]-esque ‘Natasha’ with “I may have to break into a yoga position to hit some of these notes” and performs a “protest song” called ‘Gay Messiah’ after which he remarks, “Oh, now I remember. The gay messiah already came.” Outrageous and camp and genuinely funny, he charms his audience even when his music can’t.

As [a]Rufus Wainwright[/a] takes a bow at concert’s end, a fan hands him a bouquet of roses. They’re pink. Of course.

April Long