The Things I Do For Ru

Fan ticket presales don’t always work the way they are supposed to, but when they do, they get me into all kinds of trouble.  Way back in October of 2008, I visited his fan site to see what was new and discovered Rufus Wainwright was performing at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia on Valentine’s Day with sister Martha opening.  Philly seemed vaguely do-able and the fan presale had just started, so I punched in a request for a single seat to see what would come up.  Expecting something in Row L that would be decent but not remotely worth  traveling to the East Coast, I saw instead Row C and what looked like piano-side.

I did some quick Web research just to ascertain this was as good a seat as it seemed, and found that indeed it was not–it was true second row, even better.  True second row at what looked to be a stunning venue, unlike the Hammond, Indiana casino at which I had recently seen Rufus exhibit his usual professionalism in a room with all the warmth of Rave Motion Pictures, with an audience 3/4 of whom appeared either drunk or comped.  Just like last year’s Valentine’s Day show at Radio City Music Hall with Sean Lennon opening but with a much better seat, I felt driven to go in a way that is admittedly not rational on the surface but makes perfect sense to me.   Certainly the impulse is impractical and may even seem selfish, but I know from my own experience that I do these things because one can’t assume there will be another chance.

It was important that I make this trip as inexpensive as possible, so when I saw I could save at least $60.00 by taking Amtrak instead of flying, I told myself how much reading I could get done on a 27-hour train ride.  I had taken one long train trip before–that time to Denver–so I knew I could survive it.  I just figured I would bring a lot of reading, my computer, a notebook, and some headphones, sleep when I could, and cross my fingers no one sat with me, especially at night.  Had I realized that trains don’t always have their bathrooms on a lower level I would probably have thrown all fiscal responsibility to the winds and flown, but we’ll just have to consider this a learning experience.

The ride from Chicago to Philadelphia was tolerable, mainly because the car was not crowded and I had two full seats to myself.  The day had been so frantic– getting packed and then trucking my daughter downtown, dropping her off with my spouse, and hotfooting it to Union Station with two overpacked bags in the midst of evening rush hour–that I never had that hoped-for chance to pick up a sammich for the train.  By the time I finally made my way back to the 7-11 on wheels they call the “Cafe Car,” I was so famished that my microwaved hot dog was actually quite delicious.  I consumed it back at my seat, accompanied by a cheap mini-bottle of white wine and a titch of Simon Doonan’s Wacky Chicks.

I owe debts of gratitude to the always-entertaining Mr. Doonan and the visually stunning state of West Virginia, which took most of the next day to get through.  At one point after a somewhat restless but at least solitary night, I fell asleep reading and woke up to see what I believe was the Kanawha River, just to my right.  We rode alongside the Kanawha for a good, long time, a welcome and refreshing distraction from the encroaching odors emanating from the lavatories.  After that it was mountains and more mountains, and then cities and a slightly late arrival in Philadelphia.

I felt stinky and disheveled from the long train ride and knew I had a long day ahead of me, so my goal was basically just to myself to the Courtyard Marriott, eat something slightly better than a microwaved wiener, and hit the hay.  I did all that and washed off le eau d’Amtrak, got my monkey situated, and then settled into a surprisingly easy slumber.


I had planned to spend the first part of Valentine’s Day with an old friend having lunch and visiting the Mutter Museum.  The Mutter is the one thing you have to do in Philadelphia, forget the Liberty Bell.  I can only suggest you go on a weekday rather than a Saturday, because the place was packed beyond my comfort level.  There is something reassuringly human about the spectacle of hundreds of people lining up to peer at pickled parts of other people, but I would have enjoyed it a bit more without having to rub up so closely against my fellow rubberneckers.  We lunched at a charming local dive bar where they put coleslaw and Russian dressing on my roast beef sammich and had John Coltrane and The Who on the jukebox, and then all too soon it was time to go back to my hotel and rest up for The Rufus.

I’m not one for writing detailed concert reviews because I feel it somehow takes away from the magic, but if you are looking for setlists and such, you can find them here, along with many photos of the night.  All I have to offer is a few impressions and observations from Cloud 9, a place I can now return to in my head on those days on those days to escape when domestic chaos threatens to overwhelm my delicate sensibilities.  In case you are wondering, Cloud 9 looked a lot like this:


Being true second row, this was the best seat I’ve ever had at a Rufus show with the possible exception of third row at The Joint at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas.  Having walked to the show and appreciated the flow of human and vehicular traffic streaming to the venue, I squeezed down the long row of seats to my spot just slightly left of center.  Pausing to hug an e-chum from the U.K. that I didn’t know was going to be there, I plopped into my seat and explored this wondrous venue with my eyes.

Verizon Hall is part of a larger complex called the Kimmel Center and was the first major concert venue to open in the 21st century, and photos of the place do not begin to do it justice.  Wood is everywhere, there is a pipe organ, and it is grand and immense on a spiritually  inspiring scale.  Rufus said “I feel like I’m in court . . . but I’m winnin’ the case!”

Oddly enough, the only time I teared up was when Martha strode out with her guitar (in killer heels and a bustier top, no less), and launched into “This Life.”  This was the third time I’ve seen Martha open for Rufus, the first since 2004, and it was a revelation.  No longer the little sister clamoring for attention, she has grown into her ancestral boots and can now fully command prestigious venues the likes of Verizon Hall.  Mixing songs from her first and second albums, she was by far the strongest I’ve ever seen her and left us wanting more.  Fortunately this was not the last we were to see of Martha  this evening.

Rufus was in fine voice and looked adorable, with his longer (almost Poses-era) hair and thematic attire.  He performed a lot of older songs and left out some that I expected, which was fine by me.  By this point in his career, Rufus has assembled such a stellar catalogue of material that he can hardly go wrong in my book, but then I may just be a wee bit biased.  The greatest surprise was hearing “In a Graveyard” from Poses, which he may have done the first time I saw him perform in 2002 but that I surely haven’t seen him perform since then.  I’m just sorry I couldn’t have been in Red Bank, New Jersey two nights before to see him do “Imaginary Love,” because that would have been like winning the lottery.

Rufus was ebullient in Philadelphia, frequently referring to his boyfriend Jorn, his sister, and his fans.  At one point he thanked the Ru-bus, a contingent that has followed him around the world and given him so many scarves he said he felt like Stevie Nicks.  Just to prove it, he came out and twirled around the stage in them for the encore before sitting down and draping them around his shoulders at the piano.  It was almost as much fun as seeing Jorn pick Rufus up and carry him on his shoulders at the Pabst in Milwaukee in 2007, although minus that frisson of danger inspired by the knowledge that one’s object of adoration might fall and crack his pretty skull on the stage at any moment.

For me and for many others, the highlight and revelation of this show was the duets.  Rufus and Martha did five songs altogether, three during the set and two for the encore, and the general concensus is that the time has come for them to record a duet album.  Each strong and distinct in their own right, their voices blend so beautifully together to create a whole new entity that deserves to be captured in this moment.  My favorite of their performances was on Martha’s “Don’t Forget,” but the best video I’ve found of that night was for “April Fools.”  Although incomplete at both ends, this clip is a welcome reminder of a stunning moment in time and a performance that ranks in the top handful of us freaks who will follow this man to the far ends of the earth, just because he’s Rufus.

It’s a good thing this was a damn fine show, because my trip home was a flipping ordeal of misery.  I would like to apologize right now to anyone who was forced to deal with me on that trip, because I was inexcusably surly.  Part of the blame for this must go to Amtrak, who did not do right by me.  While Computer Guy across the aisle had to sit with someone only briefly, I had seatmates for almost the whole trip including overnight, which might have been marginally tolerable if not for the freezing cold and fecal stench that burned its way into my nostrils and carved its name in them so deeply I could still smell it a day later.  Wuss that I am, I had booked the trip based solely on my previous long train trip to Denver, but in that case the bathrooms on the train had been downstairs.  Oh well, at least this time I didn’t vomit.

Every time I take these trips I find myself wondering at some moment why I subject myself to such indignities, and then I come home and recover to bask in the memories.  I can theorize that Cloud 9 wouldn’t mean so much if I didn’t have to descend to at least the seventh circle of hell to get there, and thus far I’ve always found my way back.  Rufus Wainwright never really seems to stop performing, so I do suggest that you see him if an opportunity presents himself.  You can take a plane or a fast train, you can even drive for all I care,  but I cannot recommend you take the Amtrak Cardinal line without a gas mask and a supply of sedatives.

3 Comments so far
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If you had rolled an orange down the aisle of the train, magic fairies would have come to clean the toilets.

Comment by Marianne

Thanks Dena, lovely report! I’m so sorry about the lousy journey back… but I guess Ru made it all worth while 🙂

Comment by Sybilla

Just a wonderful blog, Dena. You deserve Cloud 9.

Comment by Melampus

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