Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Music Feature: Martha Wainwright @ The Cape Cinema

Music / Feature

Martha Wainwright @ The Cape Cinema [InRO]

The Cape Cinema, as the name implies, is primarily a movie theater; however, its owners have for several years now roped in some impressive live music for the summer season. Last year I caught Bon Iver at the peak of their buzz, who played to a packed house and shook the very foundation of the place, testing the strength of its speakers in a way the low-key arthouse fare the theater usually runs likely never has. This year, the management has chosen a very different artist in Martha Wainwright, though probably one much more appropriate for the crowd they cater to.

The venue is nestled in the heart of the very rural Dennis, Massachusetts (just minutes away from my home town), where the average aged citizen probably keeps company with Betty White and where louder musicians are often directed toward one of the area's many bars or the more eclectic Melody Tent a few towns over. This place, for better or worse, is for the art snobs; the people who fancy themselves a cut above the "Spider-Man" ogling set because the movies they like play film festivals, are often in foreign languages and feature actors your average fanboy has never even heard of. Which is no knock on these people; to a certain extent, I count myself among them, cherishing the venue as the only real bastion of intelligent cinema left in my area. I'm just giving you a sense of the scene at these shows, as further evidenced in a conversation outside, during which one man says to the other, "You'll love it in there, it's historical," and then proceeds to ask those around him, "Who is Martha Wainwright anyway?"

Of course, however uninformed this patron is about the entertainment, he's right about the history: The Cape Cinema has been around since 1930, when Cape Playhouse manager Raymond Moore opened its doors, describing it as, "a new miniature talking picture theater deluxe" (whatever that means). The real history here, and the reason our man above cited its historical value, is the arching Rockwell Kent mural overhead, which spans 6400 square feet and is always a welcome sight for this regular patron – almost making up for the venue's endurance-testing seats, which could be compared to deflated beanbag chairs draped over a wooden frame. The mural is indeed the "crowning glory" of the cinema, as the venue's website calls it, and at the time of its installation trumped even "Tintoretto's Paradise," in Venice's Doges Palace, as the largest single mural in the world.

Fun facts for sure, but what of Martha Wainwright? To give a brief primer to the readers of this review, Martha Wainwright comes from a very regal music family; she's daughter to American blues musician Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle, and her brother – probably the most recognizable name of the bunch these days – is the flamboyant crooner Rufus Wainwright. Martha, while perhaps the least known in the family, has one of the most distinctive voices in all of contemporary music and a vivacious, playful stage presence to complement it. As I already knew from countless YouTube videos and from seeing her absolutely stellar performance of "Tower of Song" in the 2006 documentary "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," this was to be a memorable show, if for no other reason than to see this generally reserved crowd's reaction to her sexually charged gestures and to her most controversially titled song ("Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"), should she play it. No dice there, but instead we get a surprise announcement.

At about 20 minutes past eight, the theater manager takes the stage to introduce Wainwright. First though, he rattles off one pretty banal story – involving his struggles contacting Wainwright's booking agent and his success after tracking her down at the Toronto Film Festival – and then informs us of something far more exciting: "Last night, I got a call from Martha," he says, "and she asked me if she could bring her mother along." As my mental reflexes are not particularly speedy, it takes me a few moments – and a smattering of enthusiastic applause – to realize that this means the Kate McGarrigle is in the house.

However, just Martha comes out at first, looking pretty harried with messy blond hair and black and white striped leggings, as she announces her "mom" will be joining her for some songs later on in the set. Without much pause or any further comment to the audience, she picks up one of her two acoustic guitars and launches into a highlight from her self-titled 2005 debut, "This Life." Her voice immediately fills the room with a piercing emotiveness and she displays an impeccable skill that few can match. "This light is boring," she half-whispers, and the soft glow of a single, saturated spotlight reflects off the body of her guitar as she rocks with the instrument like a dance partner. "There's a song, and it's in my head," she sings, and that same song is now in all of ours heads as well, the meaning of her every word conveyed through her delivery and in other subtle ways that only the most gifted and affecting singers can.

Afterwards, Wainwright breaks for a moment, tuning her second guitar and engaging more with the audience, asking us about the town of Dennis and declaring that she and her mom had only been there for a few hours, just enough time for a dip in the lake (setting up a great punch-line later). The story is less important than the delivery; whereas some performers can't communicate with an audience without seeming like they're on a different plane, Wainwright is endearingly casual. Were the audience a little more lively (only a few were brave enough to answer her inquiries), there could be a great repartee going on here.

Instead, we get some more songs, including the closest thing to a hit the singer has had so far ("Bleeding All Over You"), from her somewhat middling 2008 album, the hilariously titled I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too. The song is also one of Wainwright's greatest achievements lyrically, a rather stunning plea for a married man's love which climaxes in the bitingly poignant line that doubles as the above album title. It sounds perhaps even better live, void of the somewhat distracting choral backing and fluttering string arrangements on the record. As a straightforward vocal and acoustic piece the sentiments lacerate even more, with focus placed firmly on the artist's deft lyrical ability. The song also sets up, rather perfectly, Wainwright's dialogue about how many of her songs feel dishonest to sing ("In one song I say, 'I am 21,' and I wonder how much longer I can sing that"), which then segues into her ill-fated announcement that, "I have something new; it's not very good, but I'm going to play it anyway."

The song, unnamed, isn't bad at all; the lyrics are a little slight, and Wainwright suggests "maybe it can be translated. I hear it in Spanish." But, more importantly, she clearly doesn't know it very well yet, botching chord after chord and forgetting the words regularly, leaning over to check her lyric sheet between just about every line. You half expect this kind of thing from any artist playing new material, but still this portion of the show is something of a train wreck, saved only slightly by Wainwright's admission of the mishap, her very funny interjection ("shit-balls") and then by the excitement we all feel as she summons mom from backstage.

Looking even more bohemian than her daughter, in bag-lady sweater and puffy scarf, McGarrigle enters stage right and plops herself down at an electric keyboard. She immediately comes on strong with the comedy: "Grand piano," she quips, and then, brushing back her frizzy mop she proclaims, "I have pond hair" (punch-line!), and the whole audience erupts with laughter. The duo launch into a trio of songs, kicking off with "Jesus & Mary" which sounds much better than the way-over-produced version on I Know You're Married, even as McGarrigle struggles a bit to get her somewhat awkward piano playing in sync with her daughter's supple lyrical runs and tempo-changing bridge. "We never practice," Wainwright admits, and then launches into, for my money, her best song to date.

"Factory," off her debut album, has one of my favorite opening lines ever ("these are not my people I should never have come here / chick with the dick and the gift for the gab"), in part because it so perfectly encapsulates the awkward place Wainwright inhabits in the modern rock landscape; a bit too left of center for the Starbucks set (again, she has a song called "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"), but not at all experimental or adventurous enough to please indie-leaning fans of singer-songwriters in the Joanna Newsom vein. "Factory" is also probably Wainwright's most affecting song and, like most of her compositions, sounds exponentially more engaging in the live setting, where her limitless voice is given ample room to stretch out and get indulgent – but never compromising the flow of the song. Wainwright can be criticized for some things – she's a less than stellar songwriter and her production choices on record can be very poor (I'm thinking the shambling accordion polka and haunted house sonics of "Tower Song" and the sprightly marching band pop of "See Emily Says") – but few can deny the strength of that nimble, intense voice of staggering range and consistency.

And that's really the attraction here: despite some off moments musically and a very short duration (I was in and out of there in just over an hour, for which my rump – increasingly uncomfortable thanks to those wretched seats – thanks Wainwright), that voice is just so captivating and this setting such a perfect showcase for it that the set overcomes its faults. And the show couldn't really be longer than it is, as Wainwright doesn't yet have an arsenal of great songs; she's bested even by fellow Canadian Leslie Feist in that department, who's also only released two albums but of a far more consistent quality. For Wainwright, after she's exhausted the highlights there's really nowhere left to go – though I would have loved to hear those Leonard Cohen covers she performs so flawlessly.

After the obligatory "goodnight," Wainwright returns to the stage for the requisite encore, mom in tow. This time, however, McGarrigle is on her game, accompanying Wainwright on an impassioned French song and then, finally, on a truly lovely rendition of Wainwright's "Don't Forget." Which, despite being a pretty minor slow-ballad, is given ample pathos thanks to McGarrigle's candid admission that, "this is my favorite Martha song." She sways and smiles throughout, completely in tune with the song both musically and emotionally. It's a beautiful moment shared between mother and daughter, of a kind of rare and altogether transcendent variety you just don't see very often, and it turns out to be, by some distance, the undeniable highlight of the entire show.

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