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Martha Wainwright on family, music and new show with brother Rufus

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It could be the royal family of folk-pop, artsy-confessional music.

The Wainwright musical dynasty began with their troubled father, folk singer-songwriter and actor Loudon Wainwright III and their mother, the late Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle.

In this generation it has flowered into cult stardom both with gay singer and opera composer Rufus Wainwright and his younger singer-songwriter sister Martha, who are together in concert this Saturday Aug. 7 at The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda.

Of the Wainwright clan, the Guardian newspaper of London recently observed that, “Loudon, Kate, Martha and Rufus are the bards of kith and kin, the troubadours of the consanguine,” a fancy way of saying they write about family and use song to communicate with the ones they love — or in Martha’s case at least feel greatly troubled about, as in her notorious song that she admits was written to her father: the quite literally titled “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.”

But she has also sung a duet, in his 1995 album “Grown Man,” with her father Loudon. Titled “Father/Daughter Dialogue,” in it she lays bare in song her deeply felt family grievance as she sings to him, “Dearest Daddy with your songs/ Do you hope to right your wrongs?/ You can’t undo what’s been done/ To all your daughters and your son.”

In an exclusive interview with the Blade, as she was driving to Boston with her aunt Teddy to her concert appearance there Tuesday night with Rufus, Martha said that some of her songs in the Strathmore concert on Saturday will be from her first songs that were “more about my family,” as in her 2005 self-titled debut album “Martha Wainwright.”

But in addition to “some old hits from my first album,” her set will also include a mix of her more recent songs, such as those from her second album, “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too,” which are less about her family, she says, and “more so about others.” She was married in 2007 to her producer Brad Albetta.

“I have the tendency to write about people I know and love,” she admits, “and family is in that group still.”

Rufus, meanwhile, is also a troubadour of troubled family life. His troubles include the pain of their parents’ divorce when he was three and also his mother’s recent death from cancer, as well as his own personal odyssey coming out as gay while a teenager. In 1999, he told Rolling Stone that his father recognized his same-sex attraction early and has also admitted that his “mother and father could not even handle me being gay,” and it was basically off limits for discussion.

At 14, Rufus was sexually assaulted in London’s Hyde Park after picking up a man in a bar. In an interview years later, he described the event that left him fearing that he would become HIV-positive after the brutal rape in which the assailant also tried to strangle him to death.

“I thought it was going to be a romantic walk in the park, but he raped me,” and he says he survived through quick wits only by pretending to be an epileptic and faking a seizure.

He says he remained celibate for seven years after the rape but then turned promiscuous. Later, in the early 2000s, he became addicted to crystal meth and even temporarily lost his vision. The addiction reached a crescendo in 2002 during a week he has described as “the most surreal of my life,” including time spent partying with President George W. Bush’s daughter Barbara and a “debauched” evening with singer Marianne Faithfull. He has said he experienced recurring hallucinations of his father throughout.

From hitting bottom then, Rufus has said he decided he would either go into rehab or instead go to live with his father because “I knew I needed an asshole to yell at me, and I felt he fit the bill.” These and other tales of trial and tribulation are recounted in Kirk Lake’s 2009 unofficial biography, “There Will Be Rainbows: A Biography of Rufus Wainwright and the Story of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle.”

Born in 1973, his parents divorced in 1976 and Rufus lived with his mother Kate in Montreal, Canada for most of his precocious youth. He began playing piano at age six and at 13 started touring with “The McGarrigle Sisters” — Kate and her sister Anna. At age 14, he performed his song “I’m a Runnin'” in a film. He then attended high school at the Millbrook School in New York, which would later inspire his song “Millbrook.”

After briefly studying piano at universities in Montreal, he began to perform at weekly shows at Cafe Sarajevo there and soon was on the Montreal club circuit and cutting demo tapes. He showed such talent and so impressed his father that he sent the tapes to legendary songwriter and producer Van Dyke Parks, who passed them on to DreamWorks, the record label co-owned by David Geffen, which signed Rufus and released his first studio album, the eponymous “Rufus Wainwright” in 1998.

The singer had moved to New York City in 1996 but relocated later that year to Los Angeles where he spent most of two years in the studio working on that first album in sessions costing a reported $700,000. Rolling Stone called it one of the best albums of 1998 and named Rufus “Best New Artist” of the year. He was also nominated for four awards by the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards and again won for “Best New Artist,” as well winning the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding music album. Commercial success for the album was, however, limited.

Rufus toured with Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in 1998 and began his own first headline tour later that year. He lived in New York City’s shabby but chic Chelsea Hotel for six months during which he wrote most of his second album “Poses,” which was also released to critical acclaim, winning another GLAAD Media Award, but again finding limited sales. From 2001 to 2004, he toured with Tori Amos and Sting, meanwhile releasing more albums and in 2005 a DVD titled “All I Want,” featuring a biographical documentary and music videos, and that same year he contributed a solo song to Burt Bacharach’s “At This Time.”

In 2006 in two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City, he performed an entire Judy Garland set of songs based on her album she recorded there in 1961. He later repeated this concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the Paris Olympia, and at London’s Palladium, and live CD and DVD recordings of these concerts — “Rufus Does Judy” — were released in 2007. Also that year, Geffen Records released Wainwright’s fifth studio album, “Release the Stars,” produced by the singer and featuring among others his mother and sister.

His more recent interests have also turned to opera – and his first opera, originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, “Prima Donna,” the libretto written in French, is about “a day in the life of an opera singer,” anxiously preparing for her comeback, who falls in love with a journalist.

In 2010, he released his sixth studio album, “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” mainly featuring his piano and vocals with nine original songs rather than the lush instrumentation and arrangements of his other work. This new CD, for which he is now on tour, includes the closing aria from his debut opera, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent” (or the games of fancy call to me).

The CD also features three of William Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music, including Sonnet 43 giving the album its title, “All days are night to see till I see thee….”

The “thee” is possibly a reference to his boyfriend and partner of five years, German arts administrator Jorn Weisbrodt, about whom the singer declared in a recent London Telegraph interview that, “I wasn’t a huge gay marriage fan before I met Jorn because I love the whole old-school promiscuous Oscar Wilde freak show of what ‘being gay’ once was. But since meeting Jorn all that has changed.”

Also included in the album is a striking opening track, “Who Are You New York?” with its rolling arpeggios that recount an “obsessive search for an unnamed object of desire,” the haunting obsession of erotic fantasy, a song originally written for a film project, but rejected by its producers to Wainwright’s evident relief. His powerful third track, the song “Martha,” meanwhile, consists of conversational lyrics.

“Martha, it’s your brother calling/ Time to go up north and see mother/Things are harder for her now/ And neither of us is really that much older than each other any more./ Martha, it’s your brother calling/ Have you any chance to see father/Wondering how he’s doing/And there’s not much time/ For us really to be that angry at each other anymore.”

Family. The ties that bind, the ties that can also choke. Family, the seedbed of the Wainwright musical canon. Come hear brother and sister give their musical voices to this pain and this passion.

Rufus Wainwright
w/ Martha Wainwright
Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m.
Music Center at Strathmore
Bethesda, Md.
$46, 202-397-SEAT
ticketmaster.com

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year

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When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena

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Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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Music & Concerts

REVIEW: Madonna’s joyful, nostalgic, chaotic ‘Celebration’

Fans got into the groove at Capital One Arena for two unforgettable nights

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Madonna rocked D.C. this week.

The entire two-plus hours of Madonna’s “Celebration Tour” seemed to build to a singular ecstatic moment when the pop and queer icon glided above the packed floor of Capital One Arena in a lighted box belting out her 1998 hit “Ray of Light.”

You could feel the arena move beneath your feet.

It’s difficult to capture in words the spectacle, sheer joy, and even sadness that characterize Madonna’s “Celebration Tour,” which played D.C. on Monday and Tuesday nights featuring 28 songs in seven “acts.” Let’s get her tardiness out of the way: Yes, she was late. Very late. The 8:30 p.m. start time turned into 10:30, which, considering the advancing age of her fanbase, proved a challenge for many on a school night. But the moment she hit the stage, all was forgiven.

Bob the Drag Queen was a capable, entertaining emcee, opening the show with a short monologue of praise and inviting the glitter/sequin/feather-adorned crowd to the celebration. With that, Madonna appeared on the tiered stage (a nod to her 1984 MTV Video Music Awards debut atop a wedding cake) and opened the show with the unexpected “Nothing Really Matters,” a surprising choice for a “greatest hits” show given it peaked at 93 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart back in 1999 (though it did hit No. 1 on the dance chart that year). She wore a black kimono designed by Eyob Yohannes and a halo headpiece by House of Malakai, according to Harpers Bazaar. The look evoked her red kimono from the video. 

From there, old school fans were treated to an ‘80s throwback and a recreation of Danceteria featuring club hits like “Everybody,” “Into the Groove,” and “Burning Up.” 

The party anthem “Holiday” took a jarring turn as dancers were depicted dying on stage with Madonna using her coat to cover up one of them as the vibe quickly changed from intoxicating and fun to introspective and tearful as she transitioned to her 1986 ballad “Live to Tell.” In a show packed with highlights, this was the emotional core of the night. The song opened with two-story images of friends who had died of AIDS projected on giant screens around the stage; as the song progressed, the screens filled with more and more faces until the visages of hundreds of mostly gay men filled the arena with Madonna floating around them singing in tribute. It was a haunting moment and the most visually stunning sight I have ever witnessed in a concert. There wasn’t a dry eye in our row and I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind for two days, a painful reminder of our community’s recent history and Madonna’s role as one of the few celebrities who stood with us in our darkest hour. She has more than earned our loyalty after fighting for AIDS awareness and funding and standing up to everyone from the Pope to the Boy Scouts advocating for our basic humanity. 

After the emotional pull of that number, we needed some levity and Madonna delivered by pivoting to “Like a Prayer” featuring a giant carousel filled with her mostly shirtless dancers and a minute of chanting and a Sam Smith-Kim Petras “Unholy” snippet followed by a raucous version of the smash hit song.

Moving into act three, “Erotica” arrived with the dancers dressed as boxers in a ring with laser lights instead of ropes. There was an interlude featuring a dancer dressed as a Blond Ambition-era Madonna on a red velvet bed, another nod to an iconic Madonna moment, followed by “Justify My Love” with the scantily clad dancers writhing around their queen. 

One of my personal highlights followed as Madonna’s daughter Mercy James killed it, skillfully playing piano as her mother sang “Bad Girl,” another surprise setlist inclusion from 1992’s “Erotica” album. Though the single didn’t fare well on the charts, the David Fincher-directed video remains one of her absolute best, depicting Madonna as a Manhattan business executive who drinks and smokes excessively and embarks on a series of one-night stands that leads to her murder. Christopher Walken co-stars in the video, which was influenced by Wim Wenders’s acclaimed “Wings of Desire.” Mercy is clearly no nepo-baby; she’s a talented pianist who wowed the crowd. 

Next up was “Vogue,” which saw Madonna strutting the runway in a Jean Paul Gaultier-designed little black dress complete with conical bra and ending with a tribute to the ‘80s ballroom scene with Bob the Drag Queen in the role of Billy Porter from “Pose.” 

Act V commenced with a rather drawn out recording of “The Beast Within,” the 1990 track that features spoken word passages from the Book of Revelation. She’s included this one on several tours. It wasn’t a hit song and we’ve seen it multiple times before so it felt unnecessary.  

“Don’t Tell Me” saw the return of cowboy hats and line dancing, a spirited highlight of the night. Shortly after, Madonna slowed things down with a moody cover of “I Will Survive,” a poignant moment given her recent bout with a serious bacterial infection that led to the tour’s postponement.

But she was saving the best for last, as Act VI debuted with Madonna in a glittering Versace catsuit sprawled on a box singing “Bedtime Story” before rising to the rafters and tackling the aforementioned “Ray of Light.” It was an electric rendition that had the thousands of attendees on their feet. 

So, what didn’t work? There were a few missteps, chief among them a misguided tribute to Michael Jackson at the end of the show that depicted silhouettes of Michael and Madonna dancing to “Billie Jean” and “Like a Virgin.” The comparison screamed “He’s the King of Pop and I’m the Queen” — it felt thirsty and superfluous. The whole “Queen of Pop” debate smacks of 20th century sexism, especially in an era of Taylor Swift and Beyonce billion-dollar tours. Madonna should be over that by now. Further undermining the comparison, Michael Jackson detested Madonna and was caught on an audio recording calling her a “nasty witch” and accusing her of being “jealous” of his popularity. She should cut this segment from the show.

One friend described the show as “chaotic,” which it was at times, but that stems from trying to cram a 40-year catalogue of hit songs into a two-hour show. Some of the show’s transitions were abrupt but, again, when you have as many hits as she does, you have to move fast.

Another issue was the lack of a live band, which she’s included on previous tours. I think most concert-goers paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket expect to see and hear a band. Instead, she relied on a recorded track for the music and some of the vocals. But Madonna’s mic was live and she did sing most of the show. As for the dance moves, Madonna has certainly slowed down from previous tours; her dancing isn’t nearly as athletic as in tours past. But she’s 65 years old and the leg brace she’s worn on stage clearly shows she’s suffering from so many years of entertaining us in high heels. She can leave the moves to her coterie of dancers and focus on singing. 

She closed the show abruptly with a combo of “Bitch I’m Madonna” and a truncated “Celebration,” the tour’s namesake.

In all, a festive and nostalgic night with Madonna serving up hits and memories spanning decades for her adoring fans dressed in all sorts of tribute attire. If you’re on the fence about going, let me push you off. Go see her before she retires from touring. Yes, you’ll have to stay up late and indulge a few misguided moments. But our icons are aging and dying and no one can fill Madonna’s shoes. The show is a party, a walk down memory lane, and, yes, a Celebration.

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