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Loudon Wainwright III - Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre - 26 April 2005
As is far too often the case these days, I was not in the right frame of mind for entertainment when the date of Loudon Wainwright III’s London concert came ‘round, as I had the odd crisis to attend to and was drowning in work and fatigue. But Loudon is a sure thing, a guaranteed good time—not just heavenly music but stand-up comedy to boot, and I had front row seats at the comfy and convenient Queen Elizabeth Hall, so it would be a matter of sitting back calmly and letting Loudon chase away my worries.
During her pleasant enough support set, the chatty and confident sturdy Yorkshire lass Edwina Hayes, whose newly released "country/folk/pop" debut album Out on My Own includes contributions by such fine artists as Clive Gregson; Boo Hewerdine (who has opened for Loudon and recorded with Martha); Hewerdine’s former The Bible bandmate and Kirsty’s half brother Neil MacColl; Gregson’s former partner Christine Collister (who has worked with Loudon); and the great Kate St John, raved about how Loudon was just as nice as he seemed.
As she closed her set, several professional photographers came slinking around the foot of the stage with impressive digital gear and telephoto lenses held at the ready for the great man’s entrance. When Loudon casually took the stage without ceremony just past 9pm, he spotted the photographers and could barely turn away from them, beaming naturally before pointing them out to us and announcing with glee, "The paparazzi are here tonight!"
The photographers didn’t flinch as they busied themselves taking photographs from about the same distance as me, but with permission, as I watched with envy. The South Bank Centre forbids cameras and usually polices the policy with gusto, dispatching a lynch mob to any sign of a flash, but this concert was the first I think I’ve ever attended where not a single rogue flash appeared all night. A bit of a shame, really, as I might have joined in—Loudon was looking devilishly smart as well as just devilish, and these things should be recorded—but it did mean that Loudon was not distracted by frequent blinding, and perhaps that contributed to his scintillating mood tonight.
He began his set with the first song from his new album, My Biggest Fan, which he apparently was inspired to write over 10 years ago after the song’s "extremely large protagonist" (according to Loudon’s liner notes for his latest output) simply declared himself to be the holder of that title, and apparently that’s all it takes to become the inspiration for Loudon to capture you in posterity—fans, take note. On the album, the song is a long electric number in the style of John Hiatt, but live, with just the man and his acoustic guitar, it was like watching comedian Bill Bailey in his early days. In other words, rather than a songwriter, he seemed more like a comedian presenting a succession of funny lines with precise comic timing to a captivated audience that lapped up the humour, although as luck would have it, this comedian was a peerless musician with an outstanding, clear and robust voice.
Clearly, much of the audience hadn’t heard any of the punchlines yet, and no doubt much of the underlying giggling was provided by those adjusting to the first appearance of Loudon’s trademark facial contortions and wild determined tongue-waggling, the latter of which seemed slightly less prevalent tonight and usually reserved for when he was particularly excited. His feet were better controlled than usual, with one tapping loudly against the stage to provide a rhythm section. At one point, Loudon pointed vaguely out into the audience as he sang this song’s title, undoubtedly thrilling some anonymous member of the audience—unless the suggestion was that the person was fat.
The biggest laughs were gained by the line, "My fan is so large, he’s a one man entourage," with thrilled chuckles accompanying his asides such as, "the biggest surprise—apart from his size". On the album, the verse of the song at the end that discusses Loudon’s placement by the fan in the Top Three after Bob Dylan and Neil Young seems so buried in layers of electric guitars that it is easy to overlook the fun of the lyrics, but delivered so cleanly in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with no distractions from the seasoned performer’s acoustic guitar and unerring voice, this considered proclamation thrilled the audience, and their hearty applause at the mention of Neil Young verged on the disloyal.
Unsurprisingly, big cheers followed the finish of the song, and Loudon and his massive smile thanked us with genuine enthusiasm, saying it was nice to be back in the capital. (The only time I ever think of London as being the capital is when American musicians come and say that, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.) Loudon, who was wearing brown corduroy trousers that appeared to shorten his legs by a few feet, began rolling up the sleeves of his blue oxford shirt to his elbows then, announcing when he finished, "May I have the syringe please!" to more adoring laughter.
Looking incredibly happy generally, Loudon began singing, "There’ll be lots of drinking in heaven, smoking and eating and sex", with almost every line of Heaven also being punctuated with laughter. In a city of many smokers who surely regret that smoking isn’t permitted in the auditorium, Loudon’s quick delivery of the line, "That’s right—smoking’s allowed, it’s what makes all those clouds, and you don’t have to sit at the bar" earned applause. He then belted out his enthusiastic promise, "It’s gonna be great!!" to more laughter before ad-libbing with a reference to topical papal events by adding between verses, "John Paul is up there smoking right now!" There was no subsequent strike of lightning, so….
Afterwards, the venue rumbled with thrilled cheers from a devoted and amused capacity crowd, and Loudon finished off the gospel part of his set with a booming, "Hallelujah!" as he reached into his shirt pocket, unfolded and consulted a large piece of dark paper that almost looked like he’d scribbled his set list on a torn-out page of a magazine.
"I’m just gonna…" he drifted off a bit before announcing with surprised authority as though he were happy to have decided a course of action: "…sing a song for you now!" He informed us that he was going to "do some family material" for us. He launched into the profound and catchy Surviving Twin from Last Man on Earth, the song that I think best sums up all the elements of his relationship with his late father. Gone was the fun waggling tongue and exploding smile of the happy clown on stage; Loudon’s intense delivery of these words was often through gritted teeth. The spontaneous leg lifts kicked up, which made me wonder if we could classify the Loudonisms so simply as: Mad Tongue = Happy, Wild Leg = Angry.
Even minor lines of the song are clever references to their situation: "I was a numeral with his name." He delved into his childhood when he loved and looked up to his father, but then hinted at an abusive relationship with the cold words "Who says size doesn’t matter? / He was big and I was small" before reaching towards his dreams of getting big enough to fight back, which of course weren’t as sweet as expected. When he sang of how he’d found that his fame and wealth could wound his father, he practically spat out the words, and his raw emotions seemed to bubble over during the verse where he ponders how he could murder this man who was so like him without killing him, as "that would be suicide", before winding up with the pyrrhic victory that concluded their time together.
As I witnessed this concentrated delivery, I thought about interviews I’d read with his son Rufus, who is perhaps outshining his father in the public eye at the moment, where Rufus hinted at his father’s violent temper, which is hard to imagine when seeing jolly Loudon on stage, but we know from studies that dysfunctional and abusive relationships tend to be passed on in families. Not that I know these people, only through their songs, and it’s not my place to judge. I also mused that, whilst Loudon’s performance was passionate, he is a professional actor as well, so perhaps he automatically just dishes out with Olivier sauce the emotions he felt when writing whichever song years before, although that would make it no less genuine an account.
The audience really listened to Loudon as though we were in some cramped coffee house lapping up the profound words of a beatnik poet. Even I, queen of the wandering mind that can’t usually be tethered no matter how hard I try to concentrate on the treasures before me, was transfixed and eager to hear each new line of every song as though for the first time. He is an entrancing performer.
Loudon snapped back into his smiley persona and led us to the next family member enshrined in one of his songs, saying, "Here’s a song about my father’s mother, Nanny." He kicked up the quick, bubbly and delightful single from his new album, Here Come the Choppers. Somewhat reminiscent of a Harry Nilsson novelty song but with Loudon’s unique wit, the welcome song happily depicted a relative without being drenched in darkness and regret, although she certainly sounds like a force to be reckoned with. His foot was tapping so loudly to the beat that I almost thought there was a bass drum being played behind him.
The song earned significant laughs, particularly with the line, "My grandmother didn’t much bother too much about being a granny; / She didn’t bake or knit, she didn’t give a sh*t…" After the verse where Nanny pronounced men who drink beer (as Loudon would later) to be queer and that ginger ale was for sissies, Loudon added, "When we told nanny we were going to call her first great-grandchild Rufus, she said, ‘Rufus? Rufus? That’s a dog’s name!", and he really played that up, repeating the name with the incredulous look of horror that his nanny must have worn upon hearing it. Loudon threw in a few more ad-lib comments during what would be instrumental parts between verses, excitedly announcing like a circus ringleader that Nanny’s home was in "Watch Hill, Rhode Island – Home of America’s Oldest Carousel!" and referring to things she liked to cook: "brown rice and vegetables and seaweed" (though I must have heard that last one incorrectly, as the phrase seems better suited for a standardised test question: spot the item in the series that doesn’t belong. Hmmm.).
As the hall erupted in exuberant cheers, Loudon smiled broadly and thanked us, then noticed the empty floor right in front of the stage and announced with full histrionics, "The photographers all left. They’ve seen enough!" Someone in the audience filled the moment’s pause with a request for White Winos, and Loudon undoubtedly thrilled him by responding, "I’m going to do that! It’s on the list." A second request got a less certain reply—"It’s possible…" before a wave of dozens of requests rendered them all indistinguishable. Loudon posed like a confident star and declared in a kiddingly boastful tone, "There are just so many fabulous songs!"
He then explained that he was going to veer into the section of the show that dealt with his favourite topic, "death and decay". He sang the gentle, darker song Bed from Last Man on Earth, poetry that contemplates the many guises of bed, including on a philosophical level, relating it to death, as well as referring to its role in creating life…. He ended the song with the sage words, "Some say this life’s the dream instead / I say real life begins in bed." The first-class song was a useful method of calming us down—I suppose to the level of slow pulse and shallow breath mentioned in the song—before carrying on with his otherwise wholly exhilarating show.
Next, Loudon decided to merge two favourite themes. "Here’s a song that combines death and decay with unrequited love—what a fusion!" The lights went down but Loudon continued to tune his guitar, which he did remarkably quickly and usually as though he were treating us to another song. I found it surprising that someone of his stature didn’t have numerous guitars pre-tuned on stands around him waiting to be used, but clearly he tunes with electrifying speed and needs to change keys rarely, so we didn’t need much patience.
The tune he played next suggested that the song was bright and breezy, but the lyrics began, "I went to the morgue today to see you", so it was indeed a confusing fusion. Loudon had played this bitterly witty ditty [sorry about that] when I last saw him live at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and at the time, I suggested that this unreleased song must either be called The Morgue Song or A Guilty Conscience and a Broken Heart, probably the latter. Loudon sang gleefully about his ex winding up in a morgue in the same way that kids used to relish singing those slightly twisted songs like Great Green Globs Of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts or I’m Looking Over My Dead Dog Rover. I thought Loudon displayed some Tiny Tim moments as he rocked from side to side playfully dispensing this song, and little did I know how my Tiny Tim image would be validated later. Given the darkness of so many of his songs, Loudon couldn’t possibly be using that as a reason for not yet having recorded this amusing number, and the huge applause it gained suggests that he should consider doing so.
Loudon checked his pocket set list again, then said, "Let’s move away from death and decay for a while and go to pure romance." He began, "I re-learned this song—" and then was rudely interrupted by someone with poor timing shouting out a request. Loudon paused for a moment and ignored the heckle like a dignified schoolteacher whose silence makes you feel more guilty than an angry lecture, then he started again, saying that he’d re-learned the next song after having forgotten it. Some members of the audience began applauding upon recognising the introduction on the guitar to Overseas Call from his 1986 More Love Songs album. The song’s sleepier rhythm and lines like "I remember your body but I forgot your face" suggested that no song by Loudon could be a pure love song in the traditional form.
In thanking us for our applause, Loudon began a habit of adding a fact about each previous song, in this case saying that he thought it had been released in 1985—more as though he was quizzing himself rather than trying to contribute knowledge to those around him, as many of those around him would have a sharper awareness of every word he had ever written than he would have (similar to his aforementioned biggest fan who placed him third after Dylan and Young.)
Next, he moved into providing prologues for each song in order to ensure that we understood every reference. We are foreign, after all. He said that he was going to perform Grey in LA, an unreleased song, and rushed through definitions of various references he would sing. "Laurie David is Larry David’s activist wife." Larry David, of course, is the co-creator of Seinfeld and the star and creator of the sensational Curb Your Enthusiasm. Loudon said that Brad Grey was a powerful movie producer in Hollywood—though perhaps I misheard the name, as Grey’s surely better known for television (The Sopranos, Just Shoot Me), but then I presume the name also suits the song’s title. "SigAlert" refers to a traffic bulletin or, as Loudon explained it, "a guy called Sig..." (Loyd Sigmon, a business partner of Gene Autrey) invented a method of measuring the intensity of traffic jams in Los Angeles.
Loudon eventually reached the song itself--a soft, pretty and gentle account of what it’s like on those unusual days when the sunshine disappears from LA, when, as perhaps you would expect, Loudon hears a different drum and seems to be at his sunniest. He was doing quite a bit of subtle back-kicks with his leg (bang goes my theory) which, at one point, caused his guitar to leap forward and whack its microphone, but Loudon remained in control.
During the substantial amount of applause that followed, Loudon stepped back from the mike, leaned his head back and smiled contentedly. Then he returned to storytelling mode, explaining that his new album was called Here Come the Choppers not as a reference to false teeth—otherwise he would have called it "Out Come the Choppers"—but speaking of the helicopters one sees over Los Angeles, especially around The Miracle Mile, a place that featured in Steely Dan songs, Loudon added. (Methinks they mention it in Pearl of the Quarter, but I thought that was a reference to New Orleans, though Loudon is more knowledgeable about Steely Dan than I am).
Again, he rushed through explanations of terms used in the song that we might not otherwise "get": "Ralph’s" is a chain of supermarkets, Du-Par’s is a chain of coffee shops, "SAG" is the Screen Actor’s Guild, and one day he was driving in his car and reached the corner of Fairfax and Pico Boulevard and saw a glorious sign that said, "Mo’ Better Meatty Meat Burgers"! He said he just had to write about that, and he did so two years ago when things were getting "revved up to go finish off that Iraq thing there." So now, completely set up for stepping into the streets of LA, it threw me when his first line referred to whirlybirds soaring "Up there over Wiltshire" until I remembered we weren’t talking about dear old Blighty. What followed was a fairly quick, guitar-filled version of the song whose main subject I still haven’t quite grasped, in that I’m not sure what so many helicopters are doing flying over LA—are they police helicopters regularly searching for criminals? Loudon offered a bit more face scrunching and tongue-waggling whilst working wonders on an extremely busy guitar part that, even on an acoustic guitar, he managed to make sound bluesy and grungy.
As we cheered that impressive number, Loudon placed his guitar on the stand and moved to the grand piano that had lurked behind him all along. During the trip of a mere few feet to take his seat at the bench, myriad requests were hurled in his direction, and Loudon just said that he was going to do some oldies for us now. A louder member of the audience shouted out a request for Kick in the Head.
"Kick in the Head?!?" Loudon repeated, incredulously. "You’re kidding me, man!" Yet he barely paused before launching straight into the song as though it were next on his set list and he’d rehearsed it all day. For those who don’t know, it might give you an idea how old that song is if you know that it appeared on Unrequited, the same album where Loudon released the song about his first baby breastfeeding, Rufus is a Tit Man, and Rufus Wainwright—well, he’s 31 now. It was 1975, when I was extolling the virtues of Shaun Cassidy and Elton John (hey, I was nine). Loudon’s faultless performance of this oldie had vague undertones of Randy Newman or Neil Young, and as we applauded at the end, Loudon restated the title and remarked that he hadn’t sung that one for a while.
Without allowing time for distractions by other requests, he quickly began playing the next song, prompting several people older than me to cheer as soon as he sang, "I used to have a Red Guitar". It was an interesting, somewhat sad and impressively evocative song from 1972’s Album III about the aftermath of a tantrum where he destroyed his guitar as Pete Townsend would and threw it on the fire, with several references to the reaction of his then-wife Kate McGarrigle in the refrain of. "Kate, she said ‘You are a fool, you’ve done a foolish thing’." So, in the presumed absence of a guitar when he wrote it, this song was performed on piano.
He left the piano to thrilled applause and returned to the front of the stage where he inspected a green bottle of beer, clearly contemplating whether it was time to switch from water but seeming to read the label with suspicion (or perhaps Nanny’s cruel pronouncements were echoing in his head.). Rather than strapping on his guitar, he picked up a ukulele that had been lying unnoticed beside the bottles on the small table by him, and my thoughts returned to Tiny Tim. I suppose because of him, I have always found it difficult to take the ukulele seriously, but I remember Paul McCartney saying at the Earl’s Court show that George Harrison was a stellar ukulele player; he even attended George Formby conventions. Well, disregard the latter fact and the instrument can perhaps gain a bit of street cred. Loudon helped.
"From the large to the very small," he said with the mystique of a magician. He strummed it a few times then stopped to enthuse, "You see? You just hear it and you start to smile! Who needs Prozac?"
He sang a bubbly little number that is apparently called, for some unknown reason, Ukulele, full of sweet and endearing lines presumably designed by Loudon in a past career as the head of the Ukulele Marketing Board such as, "Lullaby or ditty, when you’re feeling sh*tty, it’ll cheer you up." He started rocking out as much as one can on "four strings made of nylon / always put a smile on / any face that’s feeling blue." Loudon added a few growled out "You gotta believe me" lines before scatting like Louis Armstrong. After heaping praise on the instrument in comparison to others, the song contained a beautifully poetic line near the end that insisted, "Just the thought of tubas makes me puke." Needless to say, the entire song was punctuated by sincere laughter from the audience.
This song, in addition to the ones with which he opened the show, made me think of Tom Lehrer, the genius who doubled as Professor of Mathematics and singing satirist. Our appreciation of Loudon’s talents and his clever humour are appreciated in much the same way. I then thought that I’d recently heard Loudon say in a radio interview that he actually knew Tom Lehrer, but I imagine I’ve muddled it up with someone else’s interview. In any case, I am not sure, if Loudon had been described in 1969 as "the new Tom Lehrer" rather than ‘The new Bob Dylan’, that he would have been signed so quickly.
Loudon downed his ukulele and picked up his acoustic guitar (fortunately for it, not a red one) and announced that it was family time again. "Now that I cheered you up, I’m going to bring you down," he promised ominously. He briefly tuned the guitar and then started plucking out A Father & A Son from the spectacular History album, which was applauded as soon as he began. This song has always been terrifically moving, and again it demonstrates the fluid tradition of dysfunction passed down through the Wainwright men. After setting out all the problems with coldness and distance in the Wainwright line of the family, he endearingly sings the praises of the McGarrigle clan with "Now your mother’s family, you know them / Each and every one a gem."
The line "I know what you’re going through / Everything changes but nothing is new" seems aptly to describe what young adults go through, learning to challenge and rebel and feeling like they’re the first ones to experience what actually every previous generation went through. And the line "I just want you to be just like me" vaguely echoes the sentiments of the line in the song about Loudon’s father, Surviving Twin: "…He told me I was just like him / That’s what some fathers do." A Father & A Son is 13 years old but refers to Rufus Wainwright just starting up whilst Loudon is winding down, which could hardly be applied to their careers now as Loudon was still going strong and had hardly ever been in such fine voice.
The applause at the end of that song seemed unlikely to wane, so Loudon had to shout over us to thank us. He then touchingly said that that song had been for his old friend John Peel, the veteran BBC radio presenter who had championed new artists during his 40-year career and sadly died at the end of last year; Loudon said Peel always liked that song. That dedication to a man of whom so many musos were fond earned additional cheers.
Next came another song from History, my favourite Loudon album—it was released at the time I became completely gripped by his magic, perhaps when I first saw him play at the South Bank Centre. Hitting You really caught my attention then (more regretted rage and dysfunction), and perhaps because I was 12 years then from losing my own father, I didn’t fully appreciate Sometimes I Forget. Hearing it tonight was quite an awakening. Loudon looked absolutely miserable whilst singing the emotional song about struggling to come to terms with his father’s death.
It’s true that there are times when, once the shock of the loss begins to dissipate, your mind is so full of questions and regret that it easily tricks you into forgetting the reason you’ve not spoken to the person for a while. You can make a mental note to pick up the phone to rectify that—and then remember. Obviously, it’s even more difficult to come to terms with the loss if you’re surrounded by your loved one’s belongings, untouched as though the person has just stepped out for a bit, or if there is a gaping hole in your regular routine—all things Loudon aptly addresses in this song. Even though my father’s recent death is on my mind in one sense 24 hours a day, I still wonder if I’m ever going to stop thinking, after certain encounters, "Oh, I must tell Daddy that!" before freezing from the chill of realisation. Loudon’s a true poet in being able to set these terrible feelings into potent words.
He brightened up during the lengthy applause he earned, searching all of his pockets for something—either a pick or a capo--until he laughed and said, "Oh, it’s right on the guitar!" Then he said that, as he had been doing some Dad songs, it was time to do some Mom. He slipped into the beloved White Winos with the catchy refrain of "Mother liked her white wine." The actor in him demonstrably slurred the last line of each verse and his leg occasionally lifted a bit, but the wild kicking was generally restrained tonight. For much of the song, he leaned his head back and clamped his eyes shut, and when he finished singing, the Hall filled with enormously loud applause.
He told us then that he had written a song in Montgomery, Alabama, a couple of years ago called Hank and Fred, which is on his new album. The song’s biggest fan called out, "Yeah!" Loudon said the tune was about Hank Williams and Fred Rogers, also known as "Mr Rogers", who had the first show on PBS. He explained that the show was aimed at kids younger than Sesame Street’s audience—"the Teletubby crowd". Thank goodness I grew up with Mr Rogers instead, I thought.
Loudon told us that, when his older kids were younger, he would watch them watch Mr Rogers. He attempted to describe to this British audience Mr Rogers’ cardigan and the puppets on the show, including "King Friday XIII" (I never realised he was the 13th), and Loudon said he assumed that Mr Rogers made the puppets himself. He described them as being like the Teletubbies but with some Eddie Izzard thrown in (blasphemy!) and said Mr Rogers had conversations with a trolley car. I was sitting there wondering what on earth this audience must be picturing with this wild description of our beloved childhood institution, and I guess Loudon realised that his humorous description might be taken too literally by an audience unfamiliar with this lovely soul. "Well, it wasn’t that extreme," he explained. "But anyway…." He said that everyone initially made fun of Mr Rogers but then realised what a great person he really was.
He seemed to give up on trying to convey an accurate image of Mr Rogers to middle-aged Londoners, and moved on to the other half of the song, describing the Hank Williams museum where the convertible in which he died was roped off "because singer/songwriters like me come from all around the world to throw up in the back of that car. Just the other day," Loudon said to an audience in hysterics, "Steve Earle’s ass was dragged out." He eventually sang the song about crying when he heard the news of Fred Rogers’ death on the day he was visiting Hank Williams’ grave. His wit tied the two men in the title together with the line, "One New Year’s day Hank slipped away slumped over in the back. / Oh I hope he had his cardigan on in that Cadillac."
The cardigan, as Loudon tried to explain beforehand, was a significant feature of Mr Rogers’ programme. Each show would begin with him entering the room in a suit and changing into slippers and a cardigan whilst singing "It’s a wonderful day in the neighbourhood", a song that I could probably recite in its entirety today, ending with "Won’t you be my neighbour." (When he closed the show, he would thank us children who were watching for making it such a special day just by being us, as though he were speaking to each one of us individually, to help each child realise that he/she was unique and cared for. Remember, we’re talking younger than Sesame Street!) That bright red cardigan, which his mother had knitted, is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and is the third most requested item by tourists.
Mr Rogers won every major television award for which he was eligible and his daily series, which I watched as a child in the 60s, continued until 2001. A wholly decent man off camera as well, the child development specialist created the show to help give children confidence and teach them gently about the world. He fired their imagination with the daily trips via the model trolley car into the Neighbourhood of Make Believe where children could see their old friends King Friday, Queen Sara and Henrietta Pussycat, along with many other puppets for which Rogers was the puppeteer. He was surely the gentlest soul around, yet he once addressed Congress and moved gruff Senators into refraining from halving a £20 million grant to public television in the 1960s.
I’ve no idea why I got carried away then talking about Mr Rogers, but as Loudon says, it really was a shock when he died. It was hip to poke fun of his gentle nature and I seem to recall Eddie Murphy, when getting started on Saturday Night Live, having a regular character that satirised Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, but we took for granted that Mr Rogers would always be there. So if anyone is doubting whether Loudon really felt a sense of sadness on the news of Mr Rogers’ death, I think it is likely that his words are genuine; it was hard not to feel like you lost your mentor, grandfather, vicar, and favourite teacher all in one go. He raised so many of us.
When Loudon finished his double tribute, which was much cleaner and more heartfelt with just an acoustic guitar rather than the heavy country trappings that drown the song on the album, he braved asking for requests. It sounded as though every one of the 900 people present shouted something out at once, and not a single word was distinguishable. Loudon could only laugh. He remembered a request made just before he performed Bed and said that, as it was the first request he’d heard that night, he would perform The Man Who Couldn’t Cry. "I’m so glad you’re so eager!" he added. After he took us through this number in full performance mode, hollering out certain lines for a more farcical effect, the audience roared with gratitude. Again, at the end, Loudon repeated the title as though he were in a Spelling Bee and said he thought it was from 1974. (I think it’s from 1973 but then he has so many fabulous songs, as he said himself, I’m astonished he can even get the right decade.)
Smiling lots, Loudon quickly burst out, "I know someone wants to hear this one!" and the audience cheered upon recognition of the guitar intro. "From the same record," a bubbly Loudon announced before singing The Swimming Song. At one point, he commanded, "Clap your hands—come on!" and everyone did without flagging, continuing to keep the rhythm for the duration of the song, which is unusual. Loudon played the song with mighty exuberance, even adding what almost sounded like sou-ee style pig calls in between verses. When he finished this invigorating number, the audience applauded for ages.
Then the bombardment of requests began again. I believe Loudon said he’d heard someone scream for The Picture, so he treated us to yet another enchanting song from History, singing most of the song with his eyes clamped shut as though he were looking at his memory of the photograph of him and his sister as kids and did not want to be disturbed. His heartfelt references to his sister and family were sung lovingly, and he acted as though he were making an effort to explain the importance of their relationship. I used to gaze at this photograph, which is included in the CD insert of the History album, as I listened to the wondrous song it inspired him to write.
Loudon brought the song up to date a bit by amending the words of the first verse so that, instead of singing that 1952 was "40 years ago", he sang "over 50 years ago," making the audience laugh, although he stuck to the original wording of the final verse, singing, "In 40 years, the world has changed as well as you and I."
More requests filled the hall over the applause, and Loudon seized upon one title he heard, exclaiming, "Motel Blues! You gotta be sh**ting me, man!" Nevertheless, he began plucking it out on his guitar, explaining, "I’m putty in your hands"—then he paused to check his watch before adding--"for about another 10 minutes." The song seemed to be a somewhat smoother version of Synchronicity, as again he was trying to lure a woman into a motel room (but I suppose he’s done that more than once, so…), even promising--with an exaggerated salacious grin on his face that encouraged the audience to snicker--to write a song for her if she joined him.
When the laughter and cheers died down after that one, more requests rang out, but Loudon had already begun playing the guitar introduction to the next song. "Yeah, I’m gonna do something a little local here," he explained and, perhaps predictably, began playing Primrose Hill, something of a tender classic. Loudon scrunched his face up and gritted his teeth during the grittier parts, and its otherwise smooth arrangement was arresting. No doubt most of us were still being lulled by the comfort it created before we were fully aware that Loudon was thanking us and saying it was great to be back in London—then he walked off the stage.
Fortunately, Loudon didn’t feel the need to torture us and make us work for the encore, and he was back on in about three minutes. More requests were shouted at him, but he explained, "I gotta do a song from the new album, man. The label’s here, man—and I wanna do it anyway." He immediately sang the first line of To Be On TV and carried on with this soothing song that was vastly improved without the horrible lap steel guitar (I don’t mean horribly played, I just mean that the instrument is utterly despicable). Mind you, Loudon live is a sight to behold (be-hear?) so pretty much everything improves live. He certainly knows how to be an uplifting spirit.
I thought this song would be about the insufferable number of unbearable reality television shows full of contestants who are desperate to do anything to get on the television. Instead, it cleverly starts out with seeing one’s reflection in the appliance once it’s turned off (it turns off??) before wandering into philosophical musings about displacement, death, ghosts and angels. "It’s not about survival or reality / We’re desperate to be captured, afraid to be free", he sang.
He did the label proud with that one and began to pluck away at his guitar when a member of the audience called out for Synchronicity. Loudon stopped playing and considered the request but explained, "I tried to do Synchronicity the other night and I forgot it." The requester shouted that "We remember it." Loudon said, "So if I forget it, you’ll forgive me?" I was waiting for him to ask if we would stand up and walk out on him, but the audience was already promising to help him through the song if he needed it, which he didn’t. He raced through a splendidly bouncy tune, adding a slight country twang to his vocals, but the song had nothing of the bluegrass feel that the recorded version has, and it was all the better for it. His vocals told the tale of meeting up with two women in a hotel room in hopes that he was in with a chance, and upon learning that he wasn’t for technical reasons, he probably regretted not foreseeing his brother’s advice that he "should have asked if it was cool to watch them both in bed." As always, that last line drew massive laughter from the amused audience. That turned to mammoth cheers, during which Loudon just leaned over his guitar as if he were completely spent, but beaming even more than he had all evening, before calling out with amazed pride, "I remembered it!"
Our cheers had not subsided by the time he began introducing the next number, which he said would be a song that he didn’t write. "There aren’t many songs I do that I didn’t write," he added, "and this is one that I wish I’d written." As he began playing the introduction to the song on his guitar, he called out that it was written by Peter Blegvad, perhaps nodding in his direction, as Blegvad was in the audience. When I last saw Loudon play live, Blegvad opened the show and then returned to sing this song with Loudon. Now Loudon remained alone but stunningly sang this exquisite account of fatherly pride, Daughter. It reminded me that I had half hoped that Martha might join him on stage tonight as she was playing across town this week, but she never appeared. In any case, the song fit in with Loudon’s ongoing family theme perfectly. The only problem with it was that, when he finished, he picked up his ukulele and beer and took those off stage with him and his guitar. I’m not sure about the guitar, but where we come from in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the removal of one’s beer and ukulele is a clear signal that the evening is over.
Sad as that was, surely no one was glum. His show, about an hour and a half’s worth of sparkling spirit, comedic banter and some method of brightening our dispositions with even the saddest of songs, certainly seemed to improve the atmosphere for all of us. Even after he left us, most things seemed to go right.
The only things that didn’t go smoothly for me were, first, the fact that the putrid, dead-skunk smelling, disgusting drunken fool who sat behind me on the train home regressed to such an age that he thought it would be hilarious to spend the entire journey putting his vile, filthy hands in my hair and repeatedly tugging it, with his slow motion reactions seeing him feign sleep about 10 minutes after I caught him in the act time and time again. Then I found—by having to miss several trains into work the next day--that my season ticket, renewed for the year only the day before, had chosen to jump ship somewhere at the South Bank Centre. Its replacement cost me some money and endless time at the ticket counter whilst the chap serving me loudly repeated a dozen times that I must have broken the record for losing a ticket so quickly, as though I were Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘Em, whilst he muttered about how my details disastrously weren’t on the computer as though it were my fault.
But I’ve found a new way to deal with life’s little unpleasantries like this: pretend your life is a Loudon Wainwright song and it will all just look hilarious. Particularly if you picture him singing about it whilst contorting his face, with his tongue waggling towards his legs that are spontaneously kicking backwards. The stress will just drain away….
©2005 by TC. All rights reserved.
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have visited this review of Loudon Wainwright playing live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 26 April since 29 April 2005