Rufus Wainwright’s 15-year recording career has, at times, been brilliant and utterly unique — utilizing the singer’s personal idiosyncrasies as fuel for grandiose statements of artistic intent. He has always maintained a distinct voice as a pop songwriter, blending elements of opera, cabaret, folk rock and orchestral music into a fully-realized sound and vision. But Wainwright has consistently tempered his successes (2001’s “Poses,” standing greatest among them) with indulgent exercises (“Release The Stars”), bizarre conceptual turns (“All Days Are Night: Songs for Lulu”) and a charming, if unnecessary set of live albums (“Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall,” “Milwaukee at Last!!!”).
With new release “Out of the Game,” Wainwright returns to whip-smart, pop craftsmanship with a few stylistic upgrades courtesy of U.K. super-producer Mark Ronson. The music is very much in the Wainwright wheelhouse, but with more direction and focus than anything he’s done in years. Saturday’s concert at the Orpheum drew heavily from “Game,” and fleshed out a selection of well-worn material with powerful full-band arrangements.
As the lights dimmed, Wainwright took to the stage and launched into an a capella rendering of “Candles.” The power and dynamic range of his voice allowed for the melody to grow and shift through eight minutes of repetition, while slowly unfolding some of the best lyrical work from the new album. As the last bit of melody died out, the stage lights snapped on revealing Wainwright dressed in a tuxedo coat with tails and a set of sparkling gold pants. He and his band — all donning dark sunglasses — immediately dug into the retro lite-pop of “Barbara.”
Most of the new album cuts are steeped in a ’70s soft rock blend of lightly-effected guitars, strutting drum beats and sweetly sentimental melodies. During the set, these tunes contrasted well with the more emotional, ambitious material of Wainwright’s past. “Song of You,” a waltzing doo-wop number, sat perfectly alongside the pentatonic exoticism of 2001’s “Greek Song.” The shuffling funk of “Perfect Man” was met by a delicately stripped down reading of “One Man Guy,” which saw Wainwright trading verses with guitarist Teddy Thompson and backing singer Charysse Blackman.
Though very much focused upon the straightforward pop of his new record, the evening began to drag during its middle section. A lack of sonic contrast and a handful of lilting ballads made for a musical palette that was sleepy and, at times, downright boring. After this forgettable detour, Thompson and backing vocalist Krystle Warren performed a moving, two-song tribute to Wainwright’s mother, songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died two years ago.
As the evening came to a close, Wainwright took to the stage for a selection of solo piano renditions mixed in with a few full-band tunes. “The Art Teacher,” McGarrigle’s “On My Way to Town” and the set-closing “Poses” were breathtaking examples of the sheer talent Wainwright is capable of exhibiting on his own. In many ways, these solo renditions trumped all of the concert’s prior pomp and circumstance, revealing all of his strengths without dilution or distraction.