Saturday, December 22, 2012

Rufus and Martha Wainwright's Christmas 101 at Royce Hall: A Holiday Tribute


by Gregg Chadwick

If this was the way the world ended on 12 21 12, those of us gathered at UCLA's Royce Hall for the second night of Rufus and Martha Wainwright's Christmas 101 were being ushered into eternity with heavenly voices. 

Rufus and Martha Wainwright, the son and daughter of  Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle - who passed away in 2010 from a rare sarcoma cancer, both possess extraordinary voices and mesmerizing stage presence. Their combined talents bolstered by musical kin and comrades, including Emmylou Harris, folk singer Maria Muldaur's daughter Jenni Muldaur, the legendary Van Dyke Parks, former Eels drummer Butch Norton, Sloan Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Carrie Fisher, Rufus' husband Jorn Weisbrodt, and more, brought holiday cheer and at times poignant retrospection to last night's concert.

Christmas 101 continues a concert tradition begun in 2005 by Kate McGarrigle and her sister Anna. As well as being musical events, the shows are star splashed fundraisers for the Kate McGarrigle Fund which supports cancer care and research at the McGill University Cancer Centre and the renowned teaching hospitals of McGill University in Montreal, including the McGill University Health Centre and the Jewish General Hospital. 






The evening opened with the traditional Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, as vocalists and musicians stretched across the stage beneath a bright blue scrim dusted with images of snowflakes. The hall overflowed with family history as if we had stepped into a McGarrigle/Wainwright Christmas reunion.  

Moving from tradition to contemporaneity, Rufus next crooned his searing ode to unconditional love - Spotlight on Christmas. Rufus' richly crafted lyrics use the Christmas story as a vehicle to examine inequality and consumerism:


People love the working man
Who does the best that he can
But don't forget all the horses and toys
Never could fix the poor little rich boys
People say they love the maid
Who sweats and toils just like a slave
But don't forget all the diamonds and pearls
Never could fix the poor little rich girls

You can measure it in blood
You can measure it in mud
Let us say for these twelve days
Put the measuring away

Cause it's Christmas
And the spotlight's shining on Christmas
And the spotlight's shining on us

People love and people hate
People go and people wait
But, don't forget Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Once were a family poor but rich in hope, yeah
Don't forget Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Running from the law, King Herod had imposeth
And they were each one quite odd
And mensch, a virgin, and a God
But don't forget that what kept them aflow
Floating through the desert doesnt take a boat no
Don't forget that what kept them above
Is unconditional love

And, you can measure it in blood
You can measure it in mud
Let us say for these twelve days
Put the measuring away

Cause it's Christmas
And the spotlight's shining on Christmas
And the spotlight's shining on us
And the spotlight's shining on Christmas
And the spotlight's shining on

People love the working man
Who does the best that he can
But, don't forget all the horses and toys
Never could fix the poor little rich boys


The mood shifted, as it would all night in what seemed a conscious reflection of holiday tensions amidst a world soaked in violence and injustice, as Rufus and Jenni Muldaur played wolf and mouse in Frank Loesser's seductive standard Baby, It's Cold Outside

Van Dyke Parks appeared almost as a white haired saint throughout the evening. His passion and musicianship lifted the music and took it into another realm, particularly when he strolled into the audience to play Royce Hall's thundering organ. 


Rufus and Martha Wainwright Perform at Christmas 101
Royce Hall, UCLA
December 21, 2012
photo courtesy @christmas_101



Lucy Wainwright Roche brought the house to tears with her poignant version of Joni Mitchell's River. Many of us remarked at intermission that Lucy's singing brought the haunting lyrics to the forefront:


It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river 
I could skate away on
But it don't snow here
It stays pretty green
I'm going to make a lot of money
Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh I wish I had a river 
I could skate away on
I'm so hard to handle
I'm selfish and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on


Van Dyke Parks and @WainBright killing it: Trois Anges
photo courtesy @christmas_101



Near the close of the first half of the night, Carrie Fisher delivered a hilariously ribald spoken word routine that LA Underground thought could have been titled “A Very Fisher Christmas.” Suffice to say, it included a riff on self pleasuring Christmas gifts for Grandma and daughter as well as memories of Fisher's childhood yule-tide holidays in Vegas.

Soon after, Rufus and Martha's aunt Sloan Wainwright shook Royce Hall with her gospel fueled Thank God It's Christmas, revving the evening into a communal celebration of birth, life, death and everything in between. 

Before the break, Rufus, Martha, family and friends gathered for a lovely rendition of  White Christmas, which smartly added a nod to the absence of African-Americans in the song's lyrics and the culture itself that many of the holiday tunes rose from.


Gigi warming up Royce Hall
photo courtesy @christmas_101

After intermission, three songs in particular commanded rapt attention. Emmylou Harris dedicated her rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem to the children and the teachers gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut one week before. Harris' voice  quietly conveyed the fragility inherit in all our lives. She screamed "Enough!" in a whisper.

Later, Rufus asked for the mics and monitors to be turned off before he wafted into an a cappella rendition of the lovely Cantique de Noël - the original French version of O Holy Night. Wainwright's voice carried and echoed around Royce Hall, reminding me of the countless students, educators, politicians, and performers whose voices had also echoed in this room. 


Echoes of Royce Hall - 2008
photo by Gregg Chadwick

Martha Wainwright, brought the entire night home with her haunting singing of her mother's song Proserpina. This musical retelling of the Roman goddess Proserpina's tale was the last song Kate McGarrigle wrote. 

The myth recounts the abduction of the goddess Proserpina (or Persephone in Greek) by Pluto, the master of the underworld. Proserpina's mother Ceres, the goddess or mother of the earth, searched in vain for her daughter. Ceres lamented her vanished girl. Where had she gone? In time Ceres found a clue - a small belt dropped by her daughter in the abduction, but the fate of her daughter remained unknown. In anger, Ceres halted nature's growth. Plants withered and the world touched by her footprints turned to desert. Finally, to end Ceres wrath, Pluto who had hidden Proserpina in his underworld was forced by the other gods to set his abducted bride free. But a price was set. Proserpina could return for six months each year to her mother - Spring and Summer. But each year when the seasons change to Fall and Winter, Proserpina must return underground. 


Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Proserpina


Before Martha sang Proserpina she remarked that she once thought that her mother, Kate, had written the song about her. That she was the lost daughter. But instead, Martha said that she has come to realize that the song was written by her mother about herself as she prepared to return to meet her own mother - Martha's Grandma. 

Martha carried the song last night in a rich plaintive voice. We were honored to hear her sing and be in the presence of such a remarkable musical family. 

The entire ensemble joined in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Happy Xmas (War Is Over) to provide a fitting ending to an inspirational evening.

Christmas 101 concludes with a final performance at Royce Hall tonight. I urge you to drop everything and attend. For me, this concert series perfectly embodies what the holidays should be all about.



Martha Wainwright and Van Dyke Parks at Royce Hall
photo courtesy @christmas_101




More:

Rufus & Martha Wainwright's Christmas 101   

Rufus and Martha Wainwright Host 'Christmas 101' in Oakland




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