The general critical consensus on what’s turned out to be the folksy third trimester of Loudon Wainwright III’s career typically views the singer-songwriter as a dreadnought confessional ironist—the deepened, aged version, perhaps, of Loudon’s earlier, more prankstery and musically dilettantish persona—but often overlooks his wizened yowl of a tenor and delightfully off-kilter, if only technically proficient, rhythm guitar skills. Then again, when you’re singing lyrics about flattened mephitidae and mammary fetishes with the same plaintive candor you use to intimate autobiographical tales of domestic abuse, it tends to overshadow your subtle musicality. Still, Wainwright’s last three releases have made an impressive case for the man’s interpretative prowess, and therein his gift as a sympathetic vocalist. First he covered not only Peter Blegvad’s sing-songy heart-stroke of a filial love letter, “Daughter,” but a slight Mose Allison tune on the soundtrack to Knocked Up (his most consistent album since 1992’s epochal History, for anyone keeping score), and 2008’s Recovery was a collection of reworked and pleasantly polished Wainwright near-gems that revealed an unexpectedly revisionist eye.
But last year’s High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project was more than simply an honest, scholarly, and genuinely touching attempt at old-time revivalism that rode mule-powered circles around similar attempts by Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan earlier in the decade; it was an opportunity for Wainwright to prove he could be the star of a show that wasn’t his and shine a rusty, trusty flashlight into the nooks and crannies of an elusive figure’s emotional historicity. Granted, Poole’s hardship wasn’t too far removed from Wainwright’s—hard drinking, mistrust of “the man” (i.e. music publishers), whiny arrogance—and the album took a talented village to succeed, including producer/historian Dick Connette, who provided the album’s remarkable attention to detail (and, maybe more crucially, its budget), and a host of peripherally-related cast members such as the Roches and various Wainwright progeny. But there’s no mistaking the name on the album cover, and even when Loudon relinquishes the mic to other players for tunes about, rather than by or from the point of view of, Poole (Maggie Roche’s tender role-playing ballad about the frustrations of Poole matrimony was one of 2009’s aural zeniths), it’s his face we imagine the women bawling and the landlords fuming over.
On February 13th, Wainwright played the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley (once a cramped coffee house, the Freight has since expanded into a modest auditorium large enough for bluegrass moshing) as part of a Northwestern cluster of solo shows. Advertised as a representation of the High, Wide & Handsome album, the program turned out to be more or less a Loudon Wainwright show with the distinction of exemplary recent material; rather than waiting impatiently to hear “Red Guitar” or “I’d Rather Be Lonely,” I was anxious to see whether or not he would attempt “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” or “Awful Hungry Hash House” sans thumping double bass and rousing four-part harmony. After a pleasant if predictable fiddle-and-guitar opening act, Wainwright carried a glistening D-28 and a scruffy banjo (allegedly purchased the evening before in Petaluma) to the stage and unabashedly launched into “Hat,” an as of yet unrecorded song about his daughter Lucy’s debut utterance and its possible significance. Afterward, he feigned an apology about his choice of material, explaining Charlie Poole’s backstory and gloating over the new album’s Grammy win earlier in the month. “Yeah, we’ll get around to some Charlie Poole numbers,” he said, grinning mischievously. “But first let’s hear some Loudon Wainwright songs.”
Wainwright continued to conservatively sprinkle choice tracks from High, Wide & Handsome throughout the evening, beginning, oddly enough, with “Moving Day”—a goofy, if somewhat topical, ragtime-y shuffle about the pains of eviction that, while one of the album’s jaunty highlights, is somewhat out of character with Poole’s self-destructive belligerence, serving mainly to texture the record’s milieu. Wainwright also made a point of acknowledging that the song is hardly bluegrass or folk—the Freight’s self-proclaimed genre focus—but more proto-rock n’ roll. Yet the desultory, half-serious, all-self-serving set list, along with Wainwright’s inimitable delivery, was true to Poole in its own way: Like Poole, Wainwright is a musical tourist, a troubadour who borrows liberally from dissonant styles and smoothes the granules out with lonesome conviction. The only real difference between a song like “The Letter That Never Came” (an old-time tragedy about war-time motherhood) and “Surviving Twin” (a bitter ode to the irrationality of Oedipal urges) is that the latter manages to find hope through self-deprecation—a mechanism Poole may or may not have indulged in personally but almost certainly approved of.
I had never seen Wainwright perform live before, and it’s fascinating how many of his über-expressive mannerisms are captured as sonic embellishments on record, curling around the edges of his lucid enunciations. He performs with a shiny, cracked grin (perceptible even during weepy tunes like “White Winos,” about his mother’s self-delusions and crippling alcoholism), sad, empty eyes that leap to betray oncoming punchlines, and an over-emotive tongue that flicks fluidly at the microphone to ease glottal stops and vibratos. He plays with his entire body, particularly when wrestling with a Martin dreadnought—an instrument to which he sang a loving paean, recounting a tumble it took while handled by a feckless bitch of a flight attendant—to the point that when his hand slipped and struck the wrong chord, his core shook, and he tossed a startled “Woah!” side-stage.
It’s these attributes that make Wainwright more than simply an acoustic ironist, a label he relishes opportunities to live up to (he claimed toward the end of the evening that he was currently “cashing in” on the new depression and tossed off a handful of cynical political ditties about everything from Paul Krugman to “Cash for Clunkers”). Unlike the similarly adrift musicologist Randy Newman, whose attempts at sincerity always feel like suspicious put-ons, Wainwright tearfully owns up to his flaws with throaty exuberance, even if he can’t help but essay a poor pun when he’s through. The apex of the evening may have been “Another Song in C,” a tune that covers Wainwright’s dysfunctional childhood, his failed first marriage to Kate McGarrigle, and his shitty piano skills all in less than five minutes. “If families didn’t fall apart,” he sings, “we’d have no need for art.” Simplicity this searing would be discomfiting if it weren’t delivered with such a sensitive, warbly voice. Like Charlie Poole before him, Wainwright’s primary talent is interpretation, but rather than pool-hall standards, he builds his repertoire by interpreting the detritus of his own battered feelings.