Carnegie Hall, 12/13/06
Up to this point, it had been a very classical holiday season, what with all the choral groups, carols and opera. So just leave it to the Wainwrights to add a little downtown funk and kookiness to Christmas.
A mere two nights after an opulent evening with the NYCGMC, I was back at Carnegie to see yet another of my favorite gay men, Rufus Wainwright, and his equally brilliant, talented, and ballsy sister, Martha. It had been a long-time hope of mine to see the outspoken sibs perform on the same stage together. This evening that little Christmas wish would come true.
Originally billed as the McGarrigle Family Christmas, it was to have been led by Martha & Rufus' mom, Kate McGarrigle, with her sister and life-long songwriting partner, Anna. After their well-received Christmas concert at Carnegie in 2005, they knew they'd hit on a winning formula: Invite your whole ridiculously musical family to sing their favorite holiday tunes, and hang out informally around the stage while your famous friends come up and sing a couple Christmas ditties of their own. People loved the homespun, genuinely family-oriented, casual feel of seeing stars just enjoying each others' company, as if they're at home singing carols around a yule-tide log. A spin-off tour this year seemed like the obvious choice. Alas, an unexpected illness in the family put an end to those plans. The only date to remain was rebilled as "The Wainwright Family Christmas" at Carnegie Hall, with the promise of many surprising guests.
And just as promised, The Wainwright Family Christmas was an all-star sing-along extravaganza. (And not only onstage, but in the audience, too. Anthony LaPaglia sat way up front, and Meg Ryan got cozy with friends a couple rows in front of my seat.)
To a stage already stuffed to the gills with 7ish various Wainwrights and McGarrigles came Jimmy Fallon, acoustic guitar in tow. Bedecked in ironic Christmas sweater, khakis and topsiders, his look was very "When's the game on, Kip? Can I get you some egg nog?" Looking suitably awed by the setting, he said, "Wow, Carnegie Hall. I can't believe it. I wish my parents could see me now... but all I could get them was the cheap seats. Hi Mom, hi Dad!" He then settled in for a rockin rendition of The Ramones' "Merry Christmas, I Don't Want To Fight Tonight," complete with strategically placed Elvis-esque & Pete Townshend flourishes. Catch it here:
Jimmy Fallon: 'Merry Christmas, I Don't Want To Fight Tonight'
But Jimmy's real coup was a duet with Martha on "Baby It's Cold Outside." He was downright debonnaire, giving us a cross betweenBing and Cary, and cracking everyone up all the while. Brilliant.
Also waiting in the wings was an unbilled surprise: the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who Rufus introduced as one of the most gorgeous people on the planet. Warning us he'd never sang in public before, he looked a bit bashful standing in the spotlight at Carnegie with nothing in his hands but a wee ukelele. I guess if your voice is going to be less than perfect, an inherently goofy instrument is bound to get the audience on your side. Little did I know he could play the heck out of the thing. Yes, he did ramble on a bit long with a preamble explaining how he "got to thinking" about our soldiers in Iraq. But his resulting self-penned song asking, "how can there be war on Christmas?", was delivered with a heart-felt earnestness that forgave the limits of his voice. But maybe I'm biased, cuz he is awful cute.
In from across the pond was fellow second generation singer-songwriter, Teddy Thompson, along with his sister Kamila and their mother -- all of whom apparently have long-time family ties to the Wainwrights, from their old Leonard Cohen days. (Catch Thompson in the recent Leonard Cohen documentary, I'm Your Man.) While I hadn't heard of Teddy before, I dug his voice, sense of humor and overall vibe. (Note to self: Check out more of his tunes.) Of their handful of songs, including Kamila's overlong cover of George Michael's "Last Christmas," the standout was a distinctly British take on the classic carol, "The Holly & the Ivy," performed with the help of Rufus and his sister Lily. Check it out:
Teddy & Kamila Thompson, Lily & Rufus Wainwright: 'The Holly & the Ivy'
New York legends, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, next wowed the crowd with their appearance onstage. Lou brought the blues, half speaking, half singing a pair of classic carols in the way only Lou can. His "Silent Night" was the standout, with the Wainwright women singing doo-wop backing vocals. It sounded downright Velvety... Underground, that is.
Less of a success was Lou's longtime lover, Laurie, which really bummed me out. In a long sweater and hippie skirt, with a gold sparkly winter hat pulled down snug over her ears and a shiny gold scarf, she looked like somebody's crazy aunt with a tea cozy on her head and a garland of tree tinsel wrapped around her neck. But that would have simply underscored her artsy, out-there persona, had it not been for her sketchy performance. For her first selection, she toted out a hurdy-gurdy, which cranked out one continuous, wheezing low note while she choked out "We Three Kings" in a similarly wheezing, low range. It truly sounded as though she hadn't sang a note in several years. Or perhaps she was just getting over a cold. Even the Wainwright ladies couldn't save the thing with their tentative backup vocals. Unfortunately, her second song, with a violin in place of the hurdy-gurdy, wasn't much better. Ugh. I'm sorry, Laurie, but there you have it.
In to save the day came Antony, of award-winning Antony & the Johnsons fame. A giant with a cherub's face, a goth's black hair, and one of the most unusual, haunting voices I've ever heard, he is an unforgettable presence. Go out and see him immediately, if ever you get the chance! He's also one of the more odd ducks you'll ever see onstage. It's as if he can barely control his hands while he sings, giving him a physical performance style that can only be compared to Joe Cocker's. Whodathunk his quavering falsetto could raise the dead, but Rufus was right when he told us Elvis would be back in the building for Antony's performance of "Blue Christmas." Check it out:
Antony: 'Blue Christmas'
Spastic hand movements and all, he brought down the house. Both of his songs were among the hightest points of the evening.
With their various solo moments over, the Wainwrights' guests relaxed in chairs arrayed among the instruments, making it easy for them to dive back in here and there throughout the evening. Jimmy, Lou, Antony and the Thompsons aiding with the lower male and female harmonies, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt lending sorely-needed support on the ukelele.
Meanwhile, our hosts Martha & Rufus, were the real stars of the show, their performances and patter both equally entertaining.
How is it possible that so many incredibly talented people all come from one family? Nature vs. nurture, who cares? The point is, it works. And with a matriarch like Kate McGarrigle to pull them all together, the final tunes of the night were the most moving. Walking onstage, she was visibly weakened since the last time I'd seen her at Martha's small secret show at The Living Room, less than a year before. It was immediately clear that the illness in the family is Kate's. Rufus and Martha both tried to hide the tears streaming down their faces, as all gathered behind Kate while she sang a French carol that was clearly a family holiday tradition.
It will truly be a shame if this is the last year that Kate feels strong enough to perform live. But even if that's the case, I hope that Martha & Rufus will continue staging their family celebration at Carnegie, which is quickly evolving into one of the most eagerly anticipated annual holiday traditions in NY.