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Musical adventurer Rufus Wainwright returns to touring, plays D.C. Sept. 28

From Judy to Shakespeare to opera, gay wunderkind embraces it all

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Rufus Wainwright says critics considered his 2020 album a ‘seminal’ project. (Photo by Tony Hauser)

Rufus Wainwright and Jose Gonzalez
Unfollow the Rules in the Local Valley Tour
The Anthem
901 Wharf St., S.W.
Tuesday, Sept. 28
8 p.m. (doors: 630)
$55-75
ticketsonsale.com
theanthemdc.com
rufuswainright.com

After some artistic detours — in 2018, a second opera; before that, an album of songs based on Shakespearean sonnets in 2016 — Rufus Wainwright returned to his “regular” music in July 2020 with the release of his 10th studio album “Unfollow the Rules,” which was critically embraced and nominated for a Grammy.

A live album of the “Unfollow” material dubbed “The Paramour Sessions” was released Sept. 10.

Wainwright, 48, spoke to the Blade by phone on Sept. 1 from Nashville where he had a City Winery show that night as part of his “Unfollow the Rules Tour.” He joins Jose Gonzalez for the “Unfollow the Rules in the Local Valley Tour,” a co-headlining, 10-city mini-tour, next week. They play The Anthem on Sept. 28. Then Wainwright, who’s been publicly out since his eponymous debut album dropped in 1998, will resume his solo tour next month in the U.K. His comments have been slightly edited. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: You’re back on the road. What have the audiences been like?

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Well, they’re very excited. … There’s definitely a palpable sense of appreciation and excitement. And it’s good to be back.

BLADE: Do you feel safer singing more of the new album now that it’s been out a year and people have had time to absorb it? Is that easier than trying to sing more of it when it’s just out?

WAINWRIGHT: I definitely enjoy the whole kind of common knowledge thing now that exists with this album. And certainly having this other record, “The Paramour Sessions,” to promote as well, which is just another take on some of the same material. One can also go on a bit of a deeper dive. You know, this album actually did very well critically, it was nominated for a Grammy and a lot of people consider it a seminal work for me. I think it can handle that stretch.

BLADE: Do the new songs dovetail fairly naturally with your older songs in a set?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, this album is very much related to my first album. I’m not going to be doing my first album in the show, but it’s kind of a return to my California roots. You know, where I began my career over 20 years ago. The songs are answers in a way to some of the questions raised on the first album. … I’m not singing them back to back or anything, but a lot of my fans have followed me from the beginning so we all get it.  

BLADE: How did “Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Sessions” come about?

WAINWRIGHT: When the album was released, we still wanted to do something special online so we made this film doing a lot of the songs with a smaller ensemble at this incredible Hollywood mansion. This was at the height of the pandemic, possibly slightly illegally in the sense that we weren’t necessarily supposed to be working. But people needed to do something, you know, to get their heads out of the chaos. This was last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests and just the heat of those fires that were about to ignite, there was a very intense atmosphere and I do feel strongly that some of that drama is possibly on the recording. At least I think there’s this sort of depth there that can only come out of something like that. 

BLADE: Did it seem relatively easy returning to quote-unquote pop music after writing opera? 

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. One of the great gifts of me writing opera, which I will continue to do intermittently, is that it gave me a whole new appreciation of where I came from and all the freedoms I have in the pop world. I’m very grateful for my work in the songwriting universe and all the freedom that comes with it. 

BLADE: Are you co-headlining this tour with Jose Gonzalez?

WAINWRIGHT: Yes. It will be nice to be out with a brilliant songwriter and singer. It’s been a while since I’ve done this sort of thing. When I began my career, it was more the norm to be part of a lineup. 

BLADE: Do you know him? Will you sing anything together?

WAINWRIGHT: We haven’t met but I think it will be a very emotional meeting in a way, because it’s been a long time coming. 

BLADE: What was it like revisiting the Judy (Garland) album last summer and on her birthday no less? (Wainwright recreated Garland’s famous live Carnegie Hall album in 2007.)

WAINWRIGHT: It was a thrill. How many people can claim to have sang the same songs in the same room where she recorded a lot of them and on the actual microphone that she used with Renee Zellweger (who won an Oscar for the 2019 biopic “Judy”) as a captive audience. So yeah, I just felt a lot of gratitude and felt very privileged to be able to go on that journey. So yes, in honor of Judy, but the main thread that I’m actually worshipping is the material itself whether it’s Gershwin or Berlin. They inspire me, as a songwriter myself, to keep the bar fairly high. 

BLADE: You’ve hinted in other interviews that you want to write a Broadway musical and perhaps a ballet. You’ve written two operas. Where does this drive come from to conquer such ambitious and disparate art forms?

WAINWRIGHT: Well obviously with COVID, touring was suspended for a while, so it was a chance to try to advance the Broadway jalopy, which I’ve been trying to do for a while. There are about three or four projects that I have in the works that unfortunately I can’t talk about too much, but what I can say is that there is a wholehearted effort going on to, you know, secure my place on the Great White Way one way or another. It’s something people have been after me to do over the years because they say my music already has that sensibility. So I’m finally kind of doing my homework now. 

BLADE: And whether it’s Broadway or opera, what are the gatekeepers like in those arenas? Since you’re a known entity, is it easy to at least get a pitch meeting? How does it work?

WAINWRIGHT: Well they’re very different. I’m happy that I went into the opera world first. My first opera has been done seven times all over the world and my second one has other productions coming, so it’s been a success. Not everybody adores my work, but it made an impact and it seems to be continuing on so that’s all you can ask for anyway. I’m happy I did it, but it’s a very, very tough battle. The standards are very, very high, which is actually a good thing. With Broadway, I think there’s a whole financial element to it where people are looking to make a fortune off of these shows, so that’s kind of new for me and something I have to be cognitive of. 

BLADE: You said in another interview that the classical world could be poisonous at times. How so?

WAINWRIGHT: I meant it was the opposite of what I believed it was going to be. I had a very nice view of the classical world, and I’ve adored opera for most of my life. I thought I would be able to unleash my talents and it would be accepted and appreciated and I would be, you know, brought into the fold when in fact, it was the opposite. They were very, very dubious to me and very protective of their sacred cows, so it was a real rude awakening. It’s a very cliquish environment and everybody kind of knows everybody. So if somebody wanted to poison the well, they can and then it spreads to this massive disease about you and they’re able to spread it very easily. So the happy story is that it survived and thrived and I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

BLADE: Whether they’re fans or not, most people would concur your songs are fairly intelligent. Are art and culture and society in general getting dumbed down a little more each year?

WAINWRIGHT: I think there are some aspects that need some attending to for sure. I mean in the pop songwriting world, I’d say lyrics are really under threat. When you look at the generation that’s about to exit — people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the ones who have left us, like Bowie, and so forth, lyrics were really kind of the most brilliant jewel in the art form and now they’re just so throwaway. I don’t profess to be the world’s greatest lyricist or anything, but I do try very hard and I wouldn’t say the age we’re in is a golden age of the word. But maybe there are other art forms, like fashion or something perhaps, that are at their peak now, who knows? 

BLADE: Was it hard to maintain sobriety during lockdown last year?

WAINWRIGHT: No. My wonderful husband (Jorn Weisbrodt, whom Wainwright married in 2012), he’s not about alcohol at all. He doesn’t drink because he just doesn’t need to. And I do Zoom meetings here and there. So I thank my lucky stars it wasn’t. It would have been hard to contend with alcohol as well as COVID. 

BLADE: How’s your daughter? What’s she excited about these days? (Wainwright’s daughter Viva is 10)

WAINWRIGHT: Oh, she’s into horseback riding. She loves Tina Turner. She loves to draw. She’s actually really happy to be back in school and hanging out with her friends. 

BLADE: How often do you talk to your dad on average? (Wainwright is the son of Loudon Wainwright III, an acclaimed singer/songwriter.)

WAINWRIGHT: We try to talk once a week. We’ve kind of made it into this calendar item and it works really well that way. Just to touch base and see how we’re doing. Other times we’ll get into more sensitive territory. I think especially since losing my mother, I’m just aware that it’s a finite amount of time these people are going to be around, so you might as well spend time with them while you can. 

BLADE: How closely do you follow current pop music? Is there anybody who particularly excites you?

WAINWRIGHT: I do. I like Perfume Genius and Lana Del Rey. And I like The Weeknd. When those songs come on, I’m like, “Wow, that’s a real hit.” I admire that because I’ve never been able to crack that nut, nor do I think I probably ever will. 

Rufus Wainwright says returning to pop songcraft after two operas was artistically satisfying. (Photo by Tony Hauser)
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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Music & Concerts

BETTY returns to DC

Queer band to perform at City Winery Dec. 5

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

Pop-rock band BETTY is returning to their District homeland for a holiday show at City Winery on Dec. 5.  

Fronted by Alyson Palmer and sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, the band who are “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. The band has been featured in shows like “The L Word” and “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.”

The D.C. show will kick off a tour that will bring the band to New York City, Cincinnati, and New Hope, Pa. Elizabeth, who identifies as lesbian, said it’s been “incredible” to be in rehearsals for shows again after the pandemic put a hold on live music.  

“We’ve been together for so long. We are a family and we hang out and we’re friends and we play music together,” she said. “It’s our life.”

Amy, who is queer, said she’s excited to perform in the District where the band originally formed. 

“It’s so emotional because it’s where we grew up,” she said. “Not just musically, but it’s where we came out.”

Proof of vaccination is required at all shows. To purchase tickets, visit citywinery.com.

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Music & Concerts

We waited eons for this? New Diana album is colossal disappointment

Saccharine sentiments sink largely self-penned effort from diva supreme

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Diana Ross’s new project ‘Thank You,’ while hopeful and optimistic, is too musically weak to catch fire after the one-two punch of its opening cuts. (Image courtesy Decca)

Diana Ross’s solo albums are almost always inconsistent.

This isn’t unusual among R&B/pop divas; start wading past the hits and the same could be said for the album tracks of Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, et. al.

The few times she’s made a start-to-finish solid effort, like 1991’s “The Force Behind the Power,” 1995’s “Take Me Higher” or even 1985’s “Eaten Alive,” which works even with its campy title cut, they’ve never been huge sellers or featured any of her trademark hits.

However — and it pains me to say this — you have to go all the way back to 1983’s “Ross” to find an album as bad as her new release “Thank You” (★½ out of four), her first album in 15 years and her first of new material in 22 years. Pre-COVID, she was highly active with touring (and played the D.C. region many times), but her studio work had ground to a total halt.

A few things trickled out from the vault, like 2006’s delightful jazz album “Blue” (recorded in the early ’70s), but there was nothing new. And while it was always great to see her on stage — she looks fabulous at 77 (although you’d never know it from the vintage photo used on the “Thank You” cover) — her show varied little from year to year and her vocals were occasionally pitchy.

So while it’s great to finally have something new from the Motown legend — a studio workhorse all through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — this extremely uneven new album is a musical Hallmark turd that never met a feel-good lyrical cliche too saccharine or an easy listening musical bed too insipid.

It’s hard to place too much of the blame on Troy Miller (a veteran of Amy Winehouse’s band), who produced the bulk of the tracks here, as Ross’s fingerprints are all over it — she’s billed as executive producer and, in a career first, she co-wrote nine of the 13 cuts. Though she took a few songwriting credits here and there over the years (she co-wrote four songs on her 1982 album “Silk Electric”), on most of her albums, her songwriting contributions are zero. And although two of those — the bouncy title cut and second single “If the World Just Danced” — are unequivocally the project’s best tracks, Joni Mitchell she is not.

Here’s the good news — she sounds amazing. There’s a lustrous quality to her vocal work here, her range is truly impressive and the pitch never wavers. Some scoff, but I have always felt Ross is a great pop singer with considerable range and impressive interpretive abilities in a wide gulf of genres. She was never a Whitney or Celine, but she could coo (“Baby Love”), yearn (“Cryin’ My Heart Out for You”), burn (“Muscles”) and growl (“Swept Away”) as well as anyone. This album’s “Time to Call,” though weak, gives her a chance to unfurl several melismas in her highest register and she kills it.

Stylistically, while varied, the album as a whole is numbingly mellow. Three cuts (the solid “If the World Just Danced,” retro shuffle “I Still Believe” and horn-laden abomination “Tomorrow”) are dance tracks and almost all the rest could legitimately be dubbed easy listening. There’s cascading string work, decent (if hardly impressive) production and stylistic variation, but the flame dies out after the first two songs and, with such banal lyrics and painfully unimaginative melodies, never comes close to reigniting despite Ross’s conviction. It’s like seeing a truly good actress in a turkey of a play knowing she co-wrote it. You’re rooting for her, but you’ve spent most of the outing wincing.

One might argue saccharine and Ross have gone hand in hand back to the days of “Reach Out and Touch” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — true — but it’s taken to a new low here. Of course, nobody expected Deepak Chopra-caliber insight, but with clunkers like “what is isn’t/what isn’t is” (on the Ross co-penned “All is Well”), “I’ll be the pillow where your head will lay,” (on daughter Rhonda’s “Count on Me”) or “the first time I saw your face …” (on mother’s ode “Beautiful Love”) — ripping off a lyric that blatantly should be illegal — this album’s scaffolding is so weak, one positively groans at the amateurishness of the songcraft. This is the chorus of “Count on Me”: “count on me/count on me/count on me/count on me.”

Siedah Garrett, a respected songwriter who might have momentarily elevated the proceedings, delivers one of the album’s worst cuts with the nauseatingly treacly “The Answer’s Always Love.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.

One might also argue, hey, couldn’t we use a little positivity today? Cut Miss Ross some slack and just be glad she’s back. True perhaps, but with material this weak and the thought of what this album could have been in more daring, imaginative hands, it’s downright frustrating.

With little chance of making any kind of dent on U.S. (or U.K. for that matter) pop radio and in her late 70s, I’d hoped Miss Ross, with no fucks left to give, might have done something brash and daring, but this is called playing it safe folks and sadly it’s a yawnfest.

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