Rufus Wainwright provided the perfect glimpse into the alluring potential of City Winery on Tuesday, his first of two shows highlighting the long-anticipated West End venue’s opening week. The roughly 300-capacity room offered an intimate space to see an artist who’s spent recent years composing operas and adapting Shakespearean sonnets rather than refining his pop fame from the early aughts. And Wainwright appeared solo, a format that fit the scaled-down setting, trading between a baby grand piano and an acoustic guitar for a wide-ranging 90-minute set.
First, the new room itself. As part of a classy national chain where you can get a fine glass of wine as well as a beer or food to go with the music, City Winery already had a bunch of stuff down cold, instantly serving a high-end experience when it comes to a crystal-clear suspended sound system, burnished stage lighting and a relaxed vibe. But for reserved-seat shows like Wainwright’s, some tweaks would be in order, at least nearer to the stage. Long tables that stretch out perpendicularly from the stage meant that people on the inside of outer tables had to turn uncomfortably to one side to watch the show, which might have been ok if the chairs weren’t so tightly packed that it was hard to adjust your seat or slip out to the bathroom.
Wainwright nevertheless made the evening a joyous experience, even while delving into melancholy (and a few cynical allusions to Trump). The singer/songwriter — whose father Loudon and stepsister Lucy played the room the night before and “didn’t leave a crump” in the dressing room — nodded in particular to Leonard Cohen, telling how he lived a floor under that musical poet in Montreal and covering his “So Long, Marianne” with a brisk strum as well as the hymn-like classic “Hallelujah” on piano. For good measure, the now-bearded Wainwright added a resonant run through English folksinger Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” (which he called “the saddest song I know”).
Wainwright injected a sampling of his Shakespeare sonnet project Take All My Loves but mostly revisited his first few pop albums, notably 2001 standout Poses. He dared to follow “Hallelujah” with its swooning title track — after bookending his main set with a jaunty “Grey Gardens” and an extended “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” his dark, luxurious voice (the strongest tool in his arsenal) slipping to a whisper as if to savor the taste of chocolate — a nice contrast to the wine.