Saturday, November 17

Wainwright quips through show at McCabe’s


By Michael Tatum

"Hey, enough with the requests already … I’ve got an
agenda!"

So quipped folk singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III in the
middle of his show to a fan who just had to hear "Screaming
Issue."

Of course, Wainwright didn’t really have an "agenda" – he
consulted a tiny scrap of paper in the beginning of his set, only
never to look at it again for the remainder of the evening. Like
many sets at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where Wainwright performed three
shows Saturday, Sept. 24, and Sunday, Sept. 25, his solo acoustic
set relied on spontaneity, audience participation, and best of all,
the help of a surprise special guest.

Although Wainwright has been making records for well over 20
years on various labels, he’s never really risen above cult status
- unless you want to count his fluke radio hit "Dead Skunk," a
charming paean to roadkill. Nevertheless, his songs have been
covered by artists as disparate as Johnny Cash, Big Star and Kate
and Anna McGarrigle.

Not that the guy seems to mind his lack of commercial success;
indeed, he seems to revel in it. On his last album, the live
"Career Moves," he sings a tongue-in-cheek song bemoaning Tower
Records employees who can’t spell his name correctly on his
section’s placard. In the hilarious monologue preceding that song,
he rationalizes that at least he finally has a section ("For years
they just stuck my records in with Jerry Jeff Walker’s and Tom
Waits. ‘It’s a W, just put it in there. Who’s he?’").

Naturally, Wainwright’s wit remained intact for the duration of
his McCabe’s appearance, whether in song or in between-song patter.
The best patter of the evening?: "Okay, here’s my Pete Seeger
impersonation…’If everyone in the world would just stand together
and hold hands, then two-thirds of us would be underwater!"

The best song of the evening? Well, there you’d be in tricky
territory, but this particular fan would cite the perennial "The
Man Who Couldn’t Cry," in which the hard-hearted protagonist gets
to exact his revenge on all those who wronged him once he dies and
goes to heaven (his ex-wife dies of stretchmarks), and "He Said,
She Said," a pillow talk dialogue that displays Wainwright’s
attraction to bad puns and scatological humor ("’Please do not
speak softly’, she said/’When carrying your stick’)

Actually, most of the songs were unfamiliar even to the ears of
many Wainwright aficionados in the audience. Wainwright, who hasn’t
put out a new studio album since 1992′s "History," dedicated at
least half of his set to showcasing new material.

Like the dozens of songs Wainwright has already put on vinyl and
aluminum-coated plastic, these songs explored the same well-worn
themes: love, and its inevitable propensity to blow up in your
face; and family, particularly the kids who don’t get to see dad
after his and mom’s relationship hits the skids.

At their best, they combined the wry insight and touching
poignancy that has been Wainwright’s trademark for years. The room
nearly stood still when he sang a song about his one-year-old
daughter who he has seen only once, though he’s passed by her house
a million times ever since. He sang sadly that no matter how he
explains his reason for keeping his distance, she’ll never
understand. All he knows is that once he picks her up, he won’t be
able to put her back down, and that visiting her breaks his heart
because he knows he can’t stay.

The daughter got to speak her side in the song that immediately
followed, through the mouth of Martha, Wainwright’s 18-year-old,
the subject of many of his previous songs, including "Five Years
Old" and "Your Mother And I." The first part of this song, which
Wainwright claimed Martha herself will sing if he ever gets around
to recording it, finds the daughter scolding the wayward dad (who
in real life and in song has several sons and daughters from
several moms) that he’s "uptight," "never around," and that
regardless how much he tries to rationalize what he has done in his
songs, it doesn’t excuse his behavior. Wainwright replies in his
verse that he knows singing about what he’s done won’t make right
his wrongs, but this is his way of expiating his guilt. The guy in
the songs "isn’t him," but rather a moral apotheosis of someone who
his fans wish he could be. No matter how much Wainwright may joke
that this piece is his way of getting "the last word" you can tell
from his plaintive delivery that Martha wins the argument
anyway.

All the while Wainwright had been performing, the audience
couldn’t help but notice a second acoustic guitar propped against a
stand in the background. That could only mean a special surprise
guest – one at every show seems to constitute a sort of unwritten
tradition at McCabe’s. Though admittedly, the audience probably
wondered who would have the audacity to play a guitar with a price
tag still on it.

That man turned out to be legend Richard Thompson, who
Wainwright, after observing the British cult hero in black hiking
shorts, mused had "the best legs in folk music."

Of course, he’s more than just that. Thompson, considered to be
one of the best guitarists in rock ‘n’ roll, first made his mark in
the English folk group Fairport Convention. In the 20 years since
he bowed out from their lineup, he has made many well received
records either on his own or with his one-time wife Linda. With
her, he created the brilliant "Shoot Out The Lights," which
rightfully earned its place as one Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 10
Albums of the 1980s. The man even has his own tribute record coming
out this Tuesday on Capitol, "Beat The Retreat," on which longtime
fans like R.E.M. and Bonnie Raitt get to pay their respects.

The songs on which Thompson guested weren’t exactly Wainwright’s
best, though their covers of The Coasters (a sing-a-long "Smokey
Joe’s Cafe") and Marty Robbins fared much better.

But watching Thompson play "Mary Had A Little Lamb" would have
been captivating – to keep up with the position of the man’s
lightning-quick fingers on his guitar’s fretboard would have been
quite a task. And certainly the visual contrast between the two
constituted the best gag of the evening. Imagine the hyper animated
Wainwright, tongue hanging out, his left foot bobbing up and down,
playing his simple rhythm guitar chords as if it took every last
ounce of energy in his body. Now picture Thompson sitting down in a
stool next to his friend, cool, calm and collected, executing
flawless lines effortlessly, even casually tuning his guitar in the
seconds between his leads.

All things considered, a fine performance, though one wishes
that Wainwright had placated the audience with a few more
tried-and-true favorites like "Motel Blues" or "The Swimming Song."
But no matter. Quite possibly, this born entertainer, with his
razor-sharp wit and seemingly boundless cache of remarkable songs,
could never fail to put on an engaging, crowd-pleasing show. Like
the failed relationship about which he sang toward the beginning of
his set, he’s history.

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