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Rufus Wainwright - Rufus Does Judy at Carneige Hall Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008

ImageI heard about these Rufus Does Judy shows from a friend and instantly decided I’d purchase the recorded result (I knew one was coming). One, I’d seen Wainwright sing “I Wonder What Became of Me” on Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen, and had a strong emotional connection to his performance, and two, I knew I’d get more of the same from his recreation of Judy Garland’s landmark show from April 1961 (dubbed by oldster critics as the “greatest night in show biz history”).

Since I love torchy pop standards, lush string arrangements and haunting vocals I knew RDJACH would fulfill that need, but at the same time I’m not a fan of the “That’s Entertainment”-style show tunes Judy sang, so I realized I’d end up with some of that also. It put me into a bit of a quandary.
Since Wainwright was recreating a concert (this is actually one of the few concept albums released in 2007) he was limited in what he could do. The selections were made by Garland some 46 years ago and reflected the tastes of, what was even then, an already aging audience. So for every “Do It Again,” a beautiful tune written by Buddy DeSylva and George Gershwin, we also get a “San Francisco” or the aforementioned “That’s Entertainment.” It’s not that they are bad songs, because obviously they’re classics, but they’re outside of my ability to enjoy them beyond their “this is a standard song that’s been recorded hundreds of times” attributes.

So how could I listen to a release filled with songs I found enchanting knowing I had to suffer through songs I had no ability to appreciate? Welcome to the 21st Century! I figured if Rufus could recreate a concert (and recording) he loved so much, I can reinvent a release to meet my particular musical desires. Judy Garland, by way of Rufus Wainwright, meet me at the digital playlist (a few decades beyond St. Louis)!

Rufus Does Judy on Kevin’s Computer consists of 11 songs, and disappointingly enough does not include “Stormy Weather.” On the original it’s sung by Wainwright’s sister Martha, and although I think she is hugely talented, it comes across sounding somewhat affected and thin and broke up the flow of my version.

After opening with a medley of “Almost Like Being in Love/This Can’t Be Love” that swings lightly in that Dean-o at the Copa way, we head directly into “Do It Again,” signaling the gorgeous voice meets beautiful song portion of the program. Subtle and calm, it showcases Wainwright at his finest. His voice is warm and blends beautifully with the strings and standup bass arrangement.

Then in quick succession we’re hit with “Alone Together,” “How Long Has This been Going On” and “The Man That Got Away.” three lushly romantic songs that highlight Wainwright’s middle register and build to a rousing climax filled with Nelson Riddlesque horn stabs. It does Judy proud before settling into a dreamlike coda that makes you want to grab your significant other, open a bottle of wine and cozy up in front of the fireplace because love will ignite.

Next is “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” which, hard to believe, is even more sensual than the trilogy that led up to it, complete with muted trumpet and an X-rated tenor sax solo. Is that log fire burning too hot or should I just take my shirt off? This is the finest example I’ve heard of Rufus’ gift for covering songs, and for those of you who don’t think Jamie Cullum represents the be-all, end-all, of covers, this is one for you.

For some reason “You’re Nearer” evokes thoughts of Chet Baker even though the vocal styles are so wildly different. Performed with only piano and voice, the sparse arrangement makes the song seem as if it’s being recorded in a smoky club instead of America’s most prestigious concert hall. The audience is respectfully quiet and truly appreciative, and are given the performance they accordingly deserve.

Rufus gracefully glides through two more lovely tunes, “Foggy Day” and “If Love Were All,” before tackling Judy’s biggest number, “Over the Rainbow.” You might’ve thought it wouldn’t make it onto the abridged Rufus Does Judy On Kevin’s Computer (due to the overdone nature of the song) but it fits so perfectly, and has such a rich emotional core, I don’t know how I could have left it off. After having his voice crack slightly at the outset he reaches deep inside and pulls out a performance that makes you want to watch Wizard of Oz again. Although I could have done without the schmaltzy brass band Judy Garland ending, Rufus has effectively turned “OTR” into a wonder for this century as well.

I figured I had to close my version with an upbeat tune so I chose “Get Happy.” A wonderful thing about Rufus Wainwright is that when he sings he makes everything sound faintly sad and no matter how many times he exhorts us to “C’mon, get happy,” there’s always a trace of irony in his voice.

There it is, my version of Rufus Does Judy, 49 minutes of exquisitely romantic music that goes by much too quickly and leaves you wanting more … just like when you’re there in front of the fire. And with this version you’re able to skip 58 minutes of show that includes “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Swanee” and “Puttin on the Ritz,” and for me that’s good. If you like those tunes, or show tunes in general, they’re expertly performed and played and I could have included “Puttin’,” but every time it cycled through I pictured Young Frankenstein and realized it will always be attached to the hip of the tap dancing monster.

Even with over half of his recreation of Judy’s greatest triumph not fitting into my musical sensibilities, Rufus Wainwright’s Judy lives up to the promise of his solitary reading of “I Wonder What Became of Me,” and that’s more than I could have asked for. It’s wonderfully romantic music colored with a twinge of sadness in a time and place that has too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bottle of wine to open.

This is an iTunes download of protected ACC files at 128 kbps, and I really cheesed it up with my graphic equalizer for my slowly decaying ears. Before that, it sounded somewhat flat, with only Rufus’ voice cutting through the mix. I boosted the highs and mids and listened to it on headphones and became very blissed out. Then I drove around my hometown listening to most of the entire two-hour show and found it to be quite popular among my friends and neighbors. With repeated listens I began to wonder if they were using Judy’s original charts and checked that little beauty out. They sound pretty close.

Extra Features
My downloaded version had the special bonus cut “Get Happy,” which I loved enough to put on the special Kevin edition that I’m still listening to as I write this. It also came with a nice full color digital booklet that had some amusing stories inside. Overall, RDJACH is remarkably old fashioned and decidedly free of any detached irony for an album recorded by someone born in 1973. His love for this material is evident, from the packaging through the way he approaches the songs. I like it.

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