By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times
Some performers convey an instant intimacy with an audience, while some fill a concert hall the moment they step onto a stage with a large, personal presence.
Rufus Wainwright does both. Appearing at the Edmonds Center for the Arts Monday night (he’s in Olympia Tuesday and Tacoma Wednesday), Wainwright, 40, wore charisma as comfortably as his casual autumn wear (jeans and soft leather jacket), which he jokingly said made him “look like a Seattle person.”
From his opening number, “Grey Gardens,” Wainwright blended delicacy and power with an easy grace, his voice big yet warm, his piano skills virtuosic but never overwhelming in a pop context. He seemed comfortable letting his talent speak for itself while enjoying opportunities to relax and tell self-deprecating jokes, including one about his penchant for referring to family members in his lyrics.
Why not? Wainwright’s family includes his parents — folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle (both the subject of his song “Want,” delivered in Edmonds with heartbreaking honesty) — as well as his sister, singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright (for whom he performed the dramatic, yearning “Martha”).
Another sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, provided a curiously funny opening set in which she spent as much time talking about cars and her dog as she did singing her winning, wonderfully crafted tunes. She also joined her older sibling on his “Pretty Things” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
The latter song prompted Wainwright to discuss the late Jeff Buckley (who also recorded “Hallelujah”).
Death seemed to stalk this concert: ainwright’s finest moment was the dedication of his beautiful, haunting “Who Are You New York?” to his friend Lou Reed, whose passing on Sunday, Wainwright said, did not seem real to him yet.
Reed “was New York,” Wainwright said, diving into a mesmerizing cascade of piano notes that seemed to suspend time and bathe the audience in city lights.
Wainwright often creates a delicious, dreamy tension by racing along on piano while singing at a more measured, deliberate pace. In the tradition of great pop music, he also concocts thrilling mélanges from hints of various influences: opera, classical music and his idol Judy Garland’s emotional realism.
By contrast, Wainwright’s ability on guitar is delightfully, disarmingly basic. On several songs (“Out of the Game,” “April Fools”) he strummed simple chords with an open hand, providing his voice a sweet, vulnerable setting.
It gave this troubadour-composer yet another layer of style and authenticity.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, The Washington Center, 512 Washington St. S.E., Olympia; $24-$72 (360-753-8585 or washingtoncenter.org).
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma; $66-$86 (253-591-5894 or broadwaycenter.org).