You never know quite what to expect from Martha Wainwright. Part rock star, part folkie, part torch singer: one second she’s strapping on an electric guitar and telling us about the time Pete Townsend joined her on stage, the next she’s on her knees with her head in her hands, singing Piaf.
That she veers so easily between the styles is in part due to her extraordinary voice and in part the charisma she brings to each performance. “Most of these songs are about hookers”, she says as she introduces two songs from her Piaf album. “Old hookers, young hookers…and some middle-aged hookers.” Aside from a couple of forgotten lyrics, she sings them flawlessly.
She starts the show alone on stage with an acoustic version of ‘Factory’, a fan-favourite from her debut album followed by ‘I Am A Diamond’ written by her mother, the late great Kate McGarrigle. “I always do these big emotional numbers at the top of the show”, she says. “So the photographers inevitably get me looking like this…” as she gurns at the audience. “I think I need botox. Or perhaps emotional botox.”
The band arrive on stage as she begins ‘Far Away’ – another song from her first and best album. “I have no children, I have no husband…” she sings. Although these days she does. Her husband and some time producer, Brad Albetta joins her on-stage on bass and later on piano for a wonderfully tortured version of ‘Stormy Weather’. Their young son was born “just up the road, in Camden”, she tells us. “Sometimes we like to dress him up as Sherlock Holmes, y’know because it’s cute… and funny.”
Inevitably, they pop up in the songs too. “I really like the make-up sex. It’s the only kind I ever get,” she sings on ‘Can You Believe It?’ — one of the best songs on her new album and Wainwright at her most candid. Less impressive is ‘Everything Wrong’ – a song dedicated to her son Arcangelo. It’s undeniably sweet but never really gets off the ground, despite Wainwright imploring him to “open his wings and take flight”.
Freed from the slightly underwhelming production on the new album, some of the other new songs really come into their own. ‘Four Black Sheep’ is darkly comic whilst ‘I Wanna Make An Arrest’ and ‘Radio Star’ assume more of a swagger in a live setting.
Family looms large in Wainwright’s work. Never more so than on the song ‘Proserpina’, which she ends on tonight. It’s the centrepiece of her new album and an undoubted highlight of the evening. It’s also the last song her mother wrote before her death two years ago. “Proserpina, Proserpina…come home to mama” she sings as the rest of the band huddle around a mic to form a Greek chorus, echoing her words. The effect is beautiful and moving.
She ends as she begins, alone on stage for an encore of ‘This Life’ from her first album. Then with a curtsy and a flash of her knickers, she’s gone.
By Matt Hall