Sunday, December 9, 2018

and all that it's supposed to be

Back in the summer, I won free tickets to a couple of shows in the area by spinning a big carnival wheel that was set up by a concert promoter at the Xponetial Music Festival (presented by Subaru). In September, Mrs. Pincus and I used our first set of free tickets to see 60s holdover Arlo Guthrie at the venerable Keswick Theater in the nearby hamlet of Glenside, where he delivered a surprisingly entertaining performance. He and his band did all the songs you'd expect Arlo Guthrie to do ("City of New Orleans," "Mr. Customs Man," that pickle-motorcycle song and a sprawling recitation of "Alice's Restaurant," complete with video accompaniment) and turned in a pretty good show. And, of course, it was free, so... no complaints.

Last night, Mrs. P and I went back to the Keswick, to see Rufus Wainwright on the 20th Anniversary tour of his first two albums. I can name two songs by Rufus Wainwright (maybe three, if you count covers) and I own none of his albums. I didn't even know that his debut was released twenty years ago. But, I don't dislike him. I just wouldn't call myself a "fan." And free tickets are free tickets, so...

First, let me offer a bit of a confession. Two days before the Rufus Wainwright show, I went to see guitarist JD McPherson bring his holiday show to the somewhat grungy Underground Arts in North Philadelphia, a venue that is more "underground" than "arts." JD and his band are touring in support of his stellar new release, a rocking Christmas album that would stand as a great record on its own, even without the sardonic Christmas references. I have seen JD McPherson several times before and at the conclusion of each show, I still can't figure out why this guy isn't a huge star.

So, in the satisfying afterglow of Wednesday night's concert, my wife and I filed through the metal detectors at the Keswick and were guided to our seats by one of the attentive ushers, all of whom would look more at home behind the counter of a Woolworth's in 1940. The Keswick opened its doors on Christmas Day 1928 and a lot of the staff appears to have been present as witnesses to that big event. The theater is currently undergoing a tediously-slow renovation, so the plain plastered walls and bare-bones stage are a bit of a stark distraction. I'm sure the place will be beautiful thirty years from now when the improvements are completed.

My wife and I were in the definite minority, as the crowd showed great enthusiasm for Rachel Eckroth, the opening act. Rachel, a member of Wainwright's band, served up a group of atmospheric tunes played on an array of synthesizers. The voice distortions and otherworldly noises emanating from her musical instruments likened her performance to a kid who just got a Casio keyboard on Christmas morning and was learning all the cool stuff it could do. Plus her songs were boring.

This picture is not blurry.
You're falling asleep.
After a short break, Rufus Wainwright and his band took the stage and busted out "April Fools," the opening track from his self-titled 1998 release – and one of the two songs I knew coming in. Well, I thought, this may not be too bad. I have been to many, many concerts where I was not at all familiar with the artist's catalog and still had a great time. (A September 2017 show by Austin indie rockers A Giant Dog comes to mind.) Rufus soon departed into the sleep-inducing mire of a slew of draggy, wordy, mid-tempo songs, all delivered in the slurred vocal styling that has become his signature. I found myself dozing, only to be awakened sporadically by the thunderous applause of the local Rufus Wainwright fan base – people who probably paid for their tickets – showing their approval.

Rufus's stage banter wasn't exactly riveting either, as he first acknowledged two young boys sitting stage-side and related an incoherent anecdote about taking his own daughter to concerts. Then, he stammered out a story about touring with his mother (the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle) with a very loose reference to being in Pennsylvania and the pay-off being an insult to fans of folk music.

The band returned to the stage after a brief intermission. They enthusiastically launched into "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," the other Rufus Wainwright song I knew. Then, Set Two took the same path we saw in Set One. It sunk back into that familiar dirge-y ebb, each line of each song dispatched at the oozing pace of an overturned jar of molasses. Mrs. Pincus and I exchanged silent, eyebrow-raised glances in the darkened theater. At the conclusion of the next song, we quickly gathered our coats and made a break for the exit under the camouflage of a standing ovation.

In my forty-plus years of going to concerts, I can say, with some level of confidence, that this was the single most boring show I have ever attended. Not a complaint, mind you, because the tickets were free.

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