Rufus Wainwright & Kristen Schaal at Wits, 4/12/13
Photo by Tony Nelson
Wits with Rufus Wainwright & Kristen Schaal
Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul
Friday, April 12, 2013
Friday night's performance of Wits should be renamed Charms, for that was how an evening with Rufus Wainwright and comedian Kristen Schaal is best summed up. The show was sold out, and host John Moe thanked everyone for braving the snow and showing up, sharing that he had been punching snowflakes all day long. The host then brought onstage the special guests for the evening, Schaal -- who charmingly interrupted Moe as he introduced her -- Wainwright, and Wainwright's shoes -- studded loafers that almost stole the show.
Wits is a radio show, so John Moe had to remind everyone that the evening was being recorded, along with the lack of an applause sign, thus when he pointed to them, that was the audience's cue to applaud. To segue into the evening, Kristen Schaal was first brought onstage to familiarize the audience with her career. The comedian looked to New York City as the mecca of fame, due to The Muppets Take Manhattan flavoring her view of the bright lights. Schaal has such a distinctive voice that it is instantly recognizable, and at the beginning of her career she was told by her speech teacher that she would never succeed because of her atrocious lisp. When John asked her what she wanted to be remembered for, she succinctly answered, "As a horse. That would be fine," but quickly changed it to, "I just want to be remembered as someone who made people smile sometimes, and maybe if I get better, made them cry...a lot."
Photos by Tony Nelson
With more of the evening dedicated to comedic skits, the music played second fiddle to the laughs. Don't tell that to Rufus Wainwright, though. He wasn't going to be outshined by anyone, and he approached the piano when John Moe announced his name to command the room with "The Art Teacher." The melancholy piece opens with his rumbling piano and moves into a narrative of a young girl who fell in love with her art teacher, telling how first loves are always the most intense and how no one after can compare. The focus of Wainwright's pieces for the evening centered on his new album, Out of the Game; he brought out "Montauk" with an introduction and dedication to his husband Jörn Weisbrodt, his daughter Viva -- which Rufus shared, "was born two years ago? No, three years ago? No, it was two. God, I'm such a great dad" -- and his late mother, Kate McGarrigle. "Montauk" shows off Wainwright's operatic range, pulling in and out of many octaves within the first few lines, all along with his dreamlike piano trills. Closing his eyes to sing, Wainwright is lost in his own world, making you believe that he truly is in Montauk where the song takes place, telling of a hopeful world that his daughter will one day visit.
Invited to the mic for his portion of storytelling that didn't require him to be behind an instrument, Wainwright shared how incredibly tired he was due to the jet lag he was suffering from his flight two days prior from New Zealand. He apologized and made a disclaimer that he was completely delirious for the evening, to which Moe replied, "You're in the perfect position to be on this show." The singer told how he got into opera as a young boy, despite how his parents were into folk music, and how that influenced his current genre "popera."
Talk of Judy Garland was also thrown into the mix, and Wainwright spoke of how his family would watch The Wizard of Oz every Easter when he was growing up. He said, "I was formed by those ruby slippers, and I would sing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' at parties for drunk adults." When 9/11 happened, he felt there was a moment when America was about to come together and start healing, but then the country quickly invaded Iraq, making him hate America. He explained, "I was born in America, so I'm able to hate America. I was born in the United States; a lot of people think I'm Canadian. I'm both. One thing that kept me going during that time was this Judy Garland record." He went on to say how much optimism and positive energy the album carried, thus leading him to record and reinterpret the record.
His sister, Martha Wainwright, was a guest on the show a few weeks prior, and Moe brought up how the Wainwright family tends to write songs about each other and issues within the family. When questioned why they didn't just pick up the phone, Rufus fell into the Wits comedic timing with, "Ah, it's too expensive."
After the intermission, Janey Winterbauer and John Munson showed off their chops and adaptability as musicians with their rendition of "Love Shack" and "One of These Things First" before Rufus was invited back to the microphone for his a capella version of "Candles." The subtle waves of his voice resonated throughout the theater, allowing the audience to glimpse the pain that he lets out in his songs, something that he hides well when not behind a mic. As soon as he was done, Kristen Schaal aptly said, "Way to sober up a show."
As part of a skit about relationships, Schaal was dubbed a relationship expert for writing a book about sex while Wainwright was also called an relationship expert, since his songs made Moe "sad." This led into a game show where both guests had to break up -- Kirsten via monologue and Rufus via song -- with Abe Lincoln, robot Abe Lincoln, and one another. This quickly unraveled into Rufus's fatigue growing more and more evident, when all he could focus on was putting on a bathrobe and talking about his bed. The audience was invited to participate in a karaoke version of "Stand By Your Man" led by Rufus, and under which he lost his place in the song and charismatically and charmingly enchanted the crowd.
Moe warned the audience early on that the show is not done when you think it's done, so just when the crowd was planning their exit, he shared that Rufus had one more song for the evening. Donning an acoustic guitar, he stepped to the mic, and with a "1, 2, 3, 4" opened "Out of the Game." The title track off his latest album has a fresh sound, yet is familiar to fans of classic Rufus songs, with a trace of '70s pop.
Critic's bias: I am in awe of Rufus Wainwright's voice. He has amazing control over his range, and I believe him to be someone who has a lot of longevity in his career. I am also a huge fan of Kristen Schaal and her work on Flight of the Conchords.
The crowd: MPR folks.
Overheard in the crowd: Kristen Schaal telling Andrea Swensson that she saw her in the crowd and knew who she was.
Random notebook dump: This was my first Wits show, and I am interested to see how the rest of the guests will turn out. The comedians will of course be entertaining and funny, but how will the other singers/performers live up to Rufus Wainwright?
Random notebook dump 2: John Moe asked Kristen if there will be a Flight of the Conchords movie, and she said, "Yes, in 2047."
Rufus Wainwright's setlist
The Art Teacher
Stand By Your Man
Out of the Game
This episode of Wits will be available to stream on April 19.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.