Sometimes you just have to say: it’s about damn time. It took a while, but singer, songwriter, and opera composer Rufus Wainwright finally made his long-awaited debut on Austin City Limits. Performing songs from his highly acclaimed tenth studio album Unfollow the Rules, and backed for this occasion by Denton, TX psych rock outfit Midlake (and their alter-ego the Texas Gentlemen), Wainwright delivered an incredible performance – a history-making, first-ever no-audience ACL taping in accordance with Covid-19 protocols.
Son of fellow bards Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright remarked “My dad did this show twice,” after nailing set opener “Trouble in Paradise,” the sparkling, witty pop tune that opens Unfollow the Rules. “I am now officially an adult.” The newly minted (47-year-old) grown-up leaned into the new record’s Laurel Canyon influence with “Damsel in Distress,” a wonderfully melodic song inspired by his friend and neighbor Joni Mitchell. Then it was time for the self-described “deep end” of the album, in particular the title track, a dramatic ballad inspired by his young daughter Viva. That amazing performance was followed by the country funk of “You Ain’t Big,” a lively poke at Middle America. Wainwright then moved to the piano for an older tune – the pretty title track of his second album Poses.
Strapping on a guitar (“I’m gay, so guitars kind of scare me”), Wainwright performed a pair of folky tunes: “Peaceful Afternoon” (written for his husband) and “Only the People That Love.” He pulled out the stops while getting overtly political for “Sword of Damocles,” a lush ballad aimed at promoting responsible presidential leadership, before shifting gears completely with “My Little You,” a solo piano “little ditty” dedicated to his daughter. He stayed at the keyboard for the powerful “Early Morning Madness,” an anthemic tune that really showed off his vocal and piano skills. He followed with the Nilsson-esque rocker “Devils and Angels (Hatred)” which included a backing track featuring strings and vocals by his sister Martha Wainwright.
“This one I really didn’t practice for,” Wainwright said at the piano, but you’d never know it from his beautiful take on Unfollow the Rules closer “Alone Time.” The band ended their portion of the show with “another uptempo number about how everything is so terrible,” the acerbic “Going To a Town,” from Wainwright’s 2007 album Release the Stars. The troubadour closed the performance alone at the piano with a gorgeous pair of tunes: the jaunty mash note “The Art Teacher” and a stunning rendition of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah.” It was a simply spectacular performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our upcoming Season 46 on your local PBS station.