The Wainwright / McGarrigle family got together for Christmas 101 – an intimate family Christmas sing-a-long and fundraiser at the 1833 seat capacity Royce Concert Hall at the UCLA campus on December 22, 2012. The headlining family members, of course, were Rufus and Martha Wainwright, the singer/songwriter progeny of the great Loudon Wainwright and the late Martha McGarrigle. Continuing a tradition started by Martha McGarrigle, this show proved to be a microcosm of what Xmas is all about – a few moments of true joy surrounded by all sorts of awkward social interactions with relatives you don’t know that well and, frankly, don’t really like.
The evening started off with Rufus Wainwright taking the stage looking like a glittery Christmas elf in skinny jeans. Martha Wainwright followed looking striking in a white peasant dress. Then the rest of the Wainwright / McGarrigle clan poured onto the stage – approximately 20 family members in all ranging in age from approximately 5 to 65. As a collective they launched into a serviceable rendition of “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” to kick off the night’s celebration.
Rufus Wainwright then took the microphone and performed an intentionally hilarious version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Jenni Muldaur. Before this rather date rapey Christmas classic (listen to the lyrics and tell me the male lyrics aren’t sexually aggressive), Rufus joked about the sexual tension that was going to boil over during this song – the joke being that Rufus is openly gay and recently wedded to his long-time partner Jörn Weisbrodt. And as promised, Muldaur and Rufus had the sexually chemistry of two dead fish laying on top of each other in a Whole Food’s freezer during this tune.
This show was intended to spotlight the Wainwright / McGarrigle family, not showcase their most talented members. This approach, unfortunately, left the audience wanting more Rufus and Martha and less random McGarrigles. For instance, cousin Vincent Dow performed a spoken word number about a Canadian thug (if such a thing exists) who keeps getting into unspecified trouble around Christmas time and therefore cannot be with his family watching hockey and drinking beer (which, I gather, is what Canadians do on Christmas Day). Unfortunately, things only got worse after that open mic poetry moment. On the song that followed, “Christmas Time is Here,” Cousin Vinny convincingly demonstrated that talent was not equally distributed in this family as he butchered this Vince Gauraldi classic with vocals barely good enough for a karaoke night in little Tokyo.
The 2nd part of show started off slowly by once again turning the microphone over to people who weren’t Martha and Rufus. Martha Wainwright and her guitar finally elevated this show four songs into the 2nd act by performing “All I Want for Christmas is You,” a wonderful Carla Thomas song by same name as the more famous song popularized by Mariah Carey in 1990s. Martha’s vocals soared high and low and filled every crevice of Royce Hall.
Things got a little dicey again as Rufus’s long-time friend Bernadette Colomine performed a French song called “Santa is a Hippie.” The song itself was fine, an upbeat and comical ditty equating Santa’s appearance and behavior with that of a flower child, but again, being subjected to amateurish performances by friends of the family while the headlining artists either sat on the side of the stage or sang background vocals was getting harder and harder to take.
The pinnacle of this show occurred when Martha Wainwright performed a stunning rendition of the traditional Christmas song “Mary Had a Baby.” Rufus Wainwright then took on a microphone-less rendition of “Oh Holy Night” in French. And as much as Rufus Wainwright’s somewhat nasal voice is an acquired taste, it’s clear that this man can sing as his stripped down rendition of this Christmas carol received a standing ovation.
On balance, Christmas 101 with the Wainwright / McGarrigle family was a hit and miss affair. When Martha and Rufus were given center stage, their stage presence and performances were undeniably arresting. But when the microphone was given to other members of the family, the results were much more mixed, often resulting in the type of performances witnessed in the first round of American Idol. The overall quality of this show could have been improved if the random family member performances were replaced by Rufus and Martha playing a few songs from their extensive, non-Christmas, catalogs. But given that this was a Christmas celebration, isn’t it only appropriate that you don’t get everything you want?
Written by Miguel Morales
OurVinyl | Contributor