When one imagines a singer-songwriter going on tour without a backing band, images of coffee shops and small theaters are conjured. But Rufus Wainwright is too big for that kind of intimacy; his songs are too big, his flamboyant persona is too big, his longing voice is too big, and it's too big a deal that he agreed to perform in Israel.
Arguably the stuffiest room in the land when it comes to high performance art, Mann Auditorium was stuffed to the brim with Tel Aviv's alt-hipster and glossy 40-something-pretty-people crowds on Thursday as Wainwright, 35, expressed jubilance over finally making it to the Holy Land between earnest, moving tunes.
The strictly self-accompanied format served to heighten the immediacy of Wainwright's songs, which became even more haunting when he stepped out from behind the grand piano at center stage and strapped on an acoustic guitar, his rhythmic, no-frills strum serving to highlight the quirks of his chord progressions and melodic lines - elements which can sometimes get lost behind a band's wall of sound. With his eyes squinted in sincerity, the singer's soaring yet endearingly nasal tone enchanted the audience.
Some artists manage to carve out international careers for themselves when they conform to - or help direct - the pop styles of the day. Others, like Wainwright, are such idiosyncratic individuals from the get-go that the mainstream pop gods have no choice but to make room for them. Not to imply that Wainwright sprung up from nowhere - the performer comes from an accomplished musical family, and he even invited his mom, old-school folkie Kate McGarrigle, onstage for a number of tunes.
Wainwright's set list favored his later compositions, but covers, including an incredibly straight-laced "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and a somewhat hurried version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," peppered the lineup.
There also seemed to be a travel-geographical theme to his selections. He and McGarrigle had some fun with Gershwin's "A Foggy Day (In London Town)." Wainwright employed experiences on a tour of a German castle, "Sanssouci," as a springboard for introspection, and he tweaked his own "Going to a Town" refrain ("I'm so tired of you, America") to express disdain over Florida and California's recent decisions to ban gay marriages. He also sang about Paris.
Between soul-searching songs, Wainwright bantered with the audience (expressing his love for local cuisine, wondering which album he was currently touring, even sharing an amusing anecdote about Walter Matthau fending off a fan while visiting Auschwitz), making for an uneasy yet undeniably entertaining juxtaposition of whimsy and weight.