In his 20 years as a recording artist, Rufus Wainwright has moved from pop singer-songwriter to operatist, critic of former President George W. Bush to critic of President Donald Trump and enfant terrible to self-proclaimed “tyrant.” Six years since the release of his last studio album as a singer-songwriter, “Out of the Game,” Wainwright finds himself at a transitional moment in his career, preparing for his next studio album following the premiere of his second opera, “Hadrian.” Amid these other projects, Wainwright, who has said he must tour to sustain himself financially, has embarked on a series of shows to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his 1998 debut.
At The Paramount Theater Dec. 10, Wainwright gave one of the last such shows on the North American leg of his “All These Poses Anniversary Tour,” which is named after a lyric from the title track of his 2001 sophomore album, “Poses.” Often political, Wainwright took the opportunity to reflect on Charlottesville’s newfound place in national politics.
“It’s hard,” Wainwright said, “to come here and not have thoughts” — a reference to the Unite the Right rally of Aug. 11-12, 2017.
The singer-songwriter released a majestic ballad, “Sword of Damocles,” ahead of the midterm elections, pledging to donate a portion of the proceeds from the single to voter registration efforts through Swing Left, an organization established in 2017 to flip Republican-held congressional districts.
At the Paramount, Wainwright dedicated a live rendition of the song to Heather Heyer, who died in the Aug. 12, 2017 car attack on the Downtown Mall. The tribute was off-color; not only did Wainwright mispronounce Heyer’s surname, but “Sword of Damocles” advocates metaphorical violence — to “[c]ut the thread” holding the titular sword — so dedicating it to a victim of actual violence is unseemly.
Yet however much Wainwright botched the introduction to the song, his performance of it was immaculate, with a commanding vibrato and an occasional gliding falsetto. The piano-driven ballad is among Wainwright’s best, dramatizing the disaffected tone of another ballad, “Going to a Town” — Wainwright’s lacerating 2007 critique of the George W. Bush administration, which he performed later in the concert as an implicit critique of Trump.
Aside from “Sword of Damocles,” “Going to a Town” and “Both Sides Now” — a subdued Joni Mitchell cover — all of the songs in the concert came from Wainwright’s first two studio albums, “Rufus Wainwright” and “Poses.” After a solo opening set from singer-songwriter Rachel Eckroth, Wainwright took the stage to the upbeat “April Fools,” a song about the idealism of love. Wainwright’s elaborate costumes throughout the concert embraced the camp of his 1998 music video for the song, which features Wainwright alongside a posse of opera heroines.
The first act of Wainwright’s concert covered his uneven eponymous debut — “Baby,” “Matinee Idol” and “Damned Ladies” did not make the setlist — and the second act covered, in sequence, the first 12 tracks of “Poses.” Wainwright performed his cover of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” in the encore, so the only track missing from this concert version of “Poses” was his reprise of the album’s first track, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” The decision to perform nearly the entirety of his sophomore album on a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first reflects the relative weakness of the freshman effort — promising and audacious but inferior.
All of the live renditions hewed closely to their studio forerunners. This either suggests that Wainwright is resting on his laurels or that his music remains relevant. Either way, Wainwright seems stuck in the outlook of his second album, which leans into his nascent fame — in a memorable line from the title track, “Poses,” he goes “from wanting to be someone” to “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue.”
Several times in the concert, Wainwright discussed his continued entrenchment in celebrity culture. At Mitchell’s birthday party, Seal “was f—ing amazing”; for repeatedly listening to Wainwright’s “Sally Ann,” “Leonard Cohen was obsessed with me” and until her death from sarcoma, “I had an amazing mother named Kate McGarrigle,” the Canadian folk singer-songwriter. In a notable departure, when Wainwright performed a cover of his father’s “One Man Guy,” his father, Loudon Wainwright III, went unremarked. Although the younger Wainwright once addressed the lyrics, “I’m gonna take you down / With one little stone” to his father, less than a week after Dec. 10’s concert, the elder Wainwright performed alongside his son at the Wainwright family “Noel Nights” show in New York City.
Never as famous as his talent merited, Wainwright has matured into a compelling mid-career artist, delving into opera composition and, with “Sword of Damocles,” mastering operatic pop. At the Paramount, Wainwright showcased the triumphs of his prodigious early albums while offering a paradigm for how prodigy matures.