Loudon Wainwright III
(Royal Festival Hall, Friday 20 May, Reviw by Chris Parker)
Although the genre might be generally regarded as being defined by the willingness of its practitioners to mine their own lives for material for their songs, singer-songwriting contains few figures as consistently self-revealing and frank as Loudon Wainwright III.
His first recorded line, from ‘School Days’on his eponymous debut Atlantic album in 1971, was, after all: ‘In Delaware when I was younger …’, and on over two dozen subsequent albums he has charted his emotional life through fatherhood, divorce and fraught relations with his children by the late Kate McGarrigle (Rufus and Martha); equally fraught and complex relations with his own father; the death of his mother (memorialised in one of his finest albums, 2001’s Last Man on Earth); and general reflections on Life, the Universe and Everything with special reference to Loudon Wainwright III.
His concerts, however, are usually humorous (often wry, but frequently downright hilarious) affairs, during which, exercising a barbed wit and a facility with words that frequently call Tom Lehrer to mind, he combines such soul-baring with an ironic detachment (manifest in his celebrated squirming stance and tongue-poking facial contortions) that enables him to put just enough distance between himself and songs such as ‘Mr Guilty’ (about the emotional wreckage he left behind him after his marriage broke up), ‘Five Years Old’ or ‘Your Mother and I’ (addressed to his children after same) to render them bearable in a concert setting. On this occasion, however, there were hints that this ironic detachment, which has been showing distinct signs of wear since the aforementioned Last Man on Earth album, is less robust these days.
Wainwright was preceded on stage by his daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, and by her mother Suzzy Roche, who set the tone of the evening with their clear-voiced sincerity and self-deprecating humour, so when his set started with ‘Grown Man’, about the problems attendant upon entering a relationship with a fortysomething male, and continued with a song pointing out that he was now older (64) than his father when the latter died, it became clear that the arch flipness of yore had been toned down somewhat, especially when, after a brief humorous interlude (‘Heaven’, detailing all the delights paradise has in store, among them beer for breakfast and unlimited and guilt-fste sex), he sang two deeply personal songs about his grandfather and father respectively.
The rest of his ninety-minute set was in much the same vein: an amusingly sympathetic song about Prince Charles (‘POW’) was followed by a list of (prescription) drugs he was currently taking (‘My Meds’,
ruefully followed by the comment: ‘Never let it be said I don’t know my own demographic’), a number of self-critical songs about past excesses, the odd reflection on the state of the planet (‘The World is a Terrible Place’) and – admittedly in response to one of the many audience requests that marked each pause in his performance – ‘Suicide Song’ (‘When you get the blues and you want to shoot yourself in the head, that’s all right … go ahead’).
Even the odd non-original song was firmly in this emotional mode (the Bryants’ classic ‘Love Hurts’, Marty Robbins’s ‘At the End of a Long Lonely Day’), so by the time Wainwright reached his third encore, it was no surprise to find that he chose a somewhat downbeat song, ‘When I’m at Your House’, rather than, say, ‘The Swimming Song’, ‘Dead Skunk’ or even a touching feelgood article such as ‘Say that You Love Me’.
In many ways, this concert was thus as notable for what it omitted as for what it actually contained: Wainwright is (like the aforementioned Tom Lehrer) a master of the telling snapshot song, epitomised by much of the material on his turn-of-the millennium album Social Studies, acerbic comments on current events (‘Tonya’s Twirls’ about skulduggery in the ice-skating world, ‘New Street People’, comparing expelled smokers with vagrants, ‘Y2K’ about the millennium ‘bug’ etc.) and tour d’horizon songs about the state of the world (‘Carmine Street’).
Such songs generally pepper his live performances, adding spice to his selection of more reflective personal songs; their absence perhaps signalled a new Loudon Wainwright, one characterised more by the sincere inward probing of the likes of ‘You Can’t Fail Me Now’ or the reflections on mortality of ‘Doin’ the Math’ (both from 2007’s Strange Weirdos) than by charming flippancy.