Toward the end of his concert on Sunday night, Rufus Wainwright sang a charming song about a pupil in love with her art teacher, who thinks the teacher is more handsome and perfect than all the Rembrandts and Turners at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vulnerability, humor, aesthetic fervor, and a golden, resonant voice - all of the qualities which render Wainwright a unique, powerful performer are encapsulated in this terrific song, "The Art Teacher." The concert - at Ronit's Farm near Kibbutz Gaash, north of Tel Aviv - could be divided in two: the first imperfect, even average half, and then the superb second half, in which Wainwright himself seems to become the student in the song. The American-Canadian singer, songwriter and composer is bright, sensitive, charming, eager to please and capable of pleasing. And so he is also forgiven for whatever he does during most of the lesson, because everyone knows that in the end no one will be able to resist his charms.
It's not that Wainwright did anything terrible during the first, disappointing part of the performance. To my mind, however, he committed a small sin by not living up to his own artistic credo. He is an artist in continual pursuit of perfection. In aesthetic terms, the songs that opened the concert were adequate, but nothing more than that.
The band, which included skilled musicians, such as the guitarist and singer Teddy Thompson and back-up singer Krystle Warren, played in a slumbering key during this part of the show. Wainwright's voice, which is ordinarily near-perfect, was not really in pitch, perhaps because he stood up and danced, rather than sitting next to the piano. Singers who play the piano sometimes like to take a break from sitting by the keyboard and that, of course, is their prerogative. Wainwright's new soul and rock album "Out of the Game," produced by Mark Ronson, constitutes a break from the piano, and the current tour to promote it naturally caters to the disc's band-oriented flavor. The problem is that Wainwright's past work set a very a high bar. The last time he appeared in Israel, in 2008, Wainwright performed solo, next to the piano, and the concert approached perfection. The first half of Sunday's concert paled in comparison. That, at least, is how I felt, not being a diehard Wainwright devotee. It would be interesting to know what the singer's adoring fans thought, and there were quite a few on hand at Ronit's Farm.
After about an hour, Wainwright descended from the stage and Thompson and Warren sang two songs associated with his mother, the singer Kate McGariggle, who was at Wainwright's last concert in Israel, and died shortly after. When Wainwright returned to the stage, everything changed and the concert reached new heights. He sat down and played piano. When he broke into the song "Respectable Dive," his voice seemed to hit its perfect pitch, for the first time in the concert. It seems as though sitting down pulls Wainwright's voice into the right octave. Wainwright's transition to the piano - he sat by the piano for most of this part of the concert - seemed to enhance the entire band's chemistry.
When he is in his groove, Wainwright is a splendid, almost incomparable performer. Just as no other popular singer would have opera played on the loudspeakers before the concert begins, no other performer could write a song like "Montauk" to his daughter, in which he sings:
"One day you will come to Montauk
And you will see your dad wearing a kimono
And see your other dad pruning roses
Hope you won't turn around and go."
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