The extended Family Wainwright must be the biggest and most talented clan in contemporary music. Headed by Loudon Wainwright III, it includes sister Sloan, son Rufus, daughters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche and now Alexandra, and numerous other relatives and players associated with Loudon and his exes Kate McGarrigle (late mother of Martha and Rufus) and Suzzy Roche (mother of Lucy).
At City Winery June 29 (the second of two consecutive Wednesday night Loudon appearances there), he brought along Rufus, Martha and Alexandra (Lucy was on tour with the Indigo Girls), Sloan, Suzzy and frequent and versatile accompanists Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield. Billed as Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, it was definitely a family affair, albeit one that reflected an uncommonly accomplished family that nonetheless has never been wholly functional.
He hinted at this after the the nostalgic summer opener “The Swimming Song” (sung with the full family) with “Bein’ a Dad,” a song expressing both the joys and sorrows of fatherhood (“Bein’ a dad can make you feel sad/Like you’re the insignificant other/Yeah right from the start, they break your heart/In the end every kid wants his mother”). He sang this one solo, and then the set broke into various solo, duet and trio vocal combinations starting with Loudon and Suzzy—with Mansfield on fiddle—singing Marty Robbins’ classic “At the End of a Long Lonely Day.”
Nervously noting that she rarely sings by herself, the ever wonderful Suzzy Roche followed with a confident take on Connie Converse’s “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains),” crediting Loudon for her being aware of the tragically mysterious Converse–the New York singer-songwriter of the 1950s who wrote sad and simple songs, and when her dream of a career didn’t pan out, disappeared without a trace in 1974, to be recently rediscovered with the release of rare recordings over the last decade or so. Sloan Wainwright capped her solo segment with a duet with her brother on the Everly Brothers classic “Love Hurts” (Mansfield on mandolin).
Tannenbaum took a fine turn, playing harmonica opposite Mansfield’s accordion on “I Had a Dream,” playing banjo on Kate McGarrigle’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino” (Martha Wainwright singing backup), and guitar on “Brooklyn 1955,” a poignant song of summer and baseball from his new self-titled debut album. A major part of the Wainwright-McGarrigles universe for decades, he also performed country bluesman Peg Leg Howell’s “Coal Man Blues,” whistling along solidly while Mansfield fiddled.
Loudon then returned to offer a taste of his Surviving Twin show, in which he “posthumously collaborates” with his late father Loudon Wainwright Jr. (the esteemed Life Magazine columnist with whom he had a typically complicated relationship) by juxtaposing his music with his father’s words. But youngest child Alexandra Kelly Wainwright nearly stole the show when she came out, complained how she’d had to watch her entire family perform on stage with instruments her entire life, and for this one time only, would throw her almost 70-year-old dad a bone by singing “No Time at All” from Pippin, which was written by his college classmate Stephen Schwartz. This she did with endearing off-the-wall aplomb, a girl friend holding up cue cards for the audience to sing along while Suzzy supported on guitar.
“Why did I spend all that money to send her to college?” wondered the proud papa. “That’s a gold mine right there!” Lexie really was that good, but older sister Martha, after duetting with their father on the guilt-slinging “You Never Phone,” picked up the gauntlet and ran with it on her own terrific “Traveler,” which she performed solo with acoustic guitar. Rufus then joined her on piano and vocals for the 1930s pop song “Moon Over Miami,” which they sang in French, they said, at their father’s surprise request—Rufus explaining that Loudon (and the kids called him “Loudon” as often as “Dad”) used to complain when they sang in French, having grown up with their mother in Montreal. Rufus followed solo with his angry and vindictive “Dinner at Eight,” though he noted the obvious in that while he and his father had indeed fought hard, “in the end, it’s a love story.”
“Isn’t this the greatest family?” the ever upbeat paterfamilias asked at one point. “It’s always a great contest getting the family on stage!” Then again, he added, “it’s all about what happens in the dressing room after!”
At least Loudon, Rufus and Martha were all good on “One Man Guy,” after which Loudon ended with “All in a Family,” having earlier sung his new Trump Funny or Die video nightmare “I Had a Dream.” He brought everyone back for the wacky encore, “Meet the Wainwrights,” which he wrote last year for The Wainwright Family Adventure in Alaska, in which the family did five shows in five different cities in Alaska, with the audience traveling with them through the entire tour.
Maybe now they might consider a family TV show a la The King Family Show, or even Lawrence Welk.