July 25-31, 2007

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Busting at the Seams

Rufus Wainwright's high drama

By David Sason

Rufus Wainwright has it all: teen-idol good looks; an astounding vocal range; formidable songs with catchy hooks; and certainly the proper rock pedigree (his parents are renowned folk artists Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle). He's been hailed as the greatest songwriter of his generation by NME and the best on the planet by Elton John. He's also been in many high-profile films, either onscreen (The Aviator) or on the soundtrack (Brokeback Mountain). So why--five critically acclaimed albums and a decade into his career--is he still not a household name?

Perhaps it's the elaborate nature of Wainwright's music, often described as "baroque pop" or "popera" (pop opera). Many of the 34-year-old's compositions are densely packed, dizzying amalgams of strings, horns, operatic choruses, ragtime rhythms and his own distinctively warm vocal timbre. After all, how many Top 40 musicians list "Papa Verdi" as an influence on their MySpace page?

Nevertheless, it's hard to refute the accolades, especially USA Today's recent assertion that he is "his generation's answer to Morrissey." Like the British singer, who also recently performed at the Wells Fargo Center, where Wainwright holds court Aug. 2, Wainwright has an insanely dogmatic legion of fans (affectionately known as "Rufophants"), a lyrical penchant for mixing high art and clever colloquialisms, a gift for dark humor set against sunny melodies, a disdain for the establishment, a penchant for Miltonic dissertations on divine tyranny and deep esteem for classic Hollywood figures.

But like all cultural torch-passing, Wainwright's bolder in all respects. In the piano stroll "Going to a Town," off his new album Release the Stars, his first self-produced effort, he equates the current United States with no less than Nazi Germany during its own bid for diabolical world domination. Like all his intensely personal albums, Stars brings us Rufus the man, in all his foibles and contradictions. Not only is he writing an opera for the Metropolitan, in September he's bringing his acclaimed Judy Garland re-creation to the Hollywood Bowl, just as he did for her famous 1961 Carnegie Hall shows back in June (a CD and DVD are released the same month). On his last album, he heralded the arrival of a "Gay Messiah," who'll be "wearing tube socks with style and such an innocent smile." Judging from his recent stint on the True Colors Tour, not to mention the green lederhosen in Release the Stars' liner notes, Rufus may be it.

Rufus Wainwright and band dominate the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, Aug. 2. Sean Lennon and A Fine Frenzy open. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $39.50-$45. 707.546.3600.

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