Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Sunday, 2 December 2012
Martha Wainwright is hugely talented. As the sister (Rufus’s) and daughter (Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle’s) of hugely talented musicians and songwriters this is no wonder. What is wondrous though is her voice. It is astonishing.
She is also completely bonkers! Delightfully so. Such is her charisma, whether it be her between song chatter or her odd mannerisms, she is a mesmerising presence on stage.
Unfortunately a lot of her own songs, more poppy than those of her folky parents and less melodic than her brother’s, don’t really provide the platform which you feel her talents, notably that voice, need.
Her voice really is something else, and got to soar on the opening two numbers of Sunday night, played by Martha solo with acoustic guitar.
Factory, from her more singer-songwriter sounding debut album of 2005, is one of her best self penned tracks. Always incredibly expressive, on this song her voice also veers from raw and husky to sweetly melodic.
Next up was I am a Diamond, written by her mother, who died in 2010. The Wainwright- McGarrigle family wear their emotions boldly on their sleeves and Martha is no different. You wondered how she would get through the night such was the intensity of emotion in her vocal delivery on this song. “I think I need emotional botox,” she quips after the song, looking mentally exhausted.
Kate, who sang and recorded with her sister Anna, played a very particular type of folk, not always easily accessible. It is ironic that Martha perhaps makes her mother’s work more powerful, while her own songs often lack some oomph.
And so on came the band, with whom Martha performed for most of the night songs predominately from her latest album. These are perfectly acceptable, AOR-pop tracks with often great open and honest mature lyrics, but musically they are really nothing special and just don’t really go where you know that voice can.
The band also seemed rather under-whelmed and underwhelming with a lack of rapport between Martha and the musicians. Bar of course her husband bass player. Dressed in a monk’s habit and black death-mask he must make quite an appropriately quirky addition to Wainwright family gatherings.
Martha though is always a joy to watch. Her left leg kicks out like a prowling horse, as if she has no control over it at all. Her arms reach upwards and she ferociously massages her hair until you feel it’s gonna fall out.
And then, when she has the songs to fully lose herself in, like the two Edif Piath numbers in the middle of the set (Martha’s third album was an entire collection of Piaf numbers), sung with just piano accompaniment, she paces lion-like round the stage and then falls to the floor as the melody and French passion soar. And of course she sings these songs in a deeply powerful chanteuse voice.
It is mum though who provides Martha with the platform to deliver the most staggering performance of the night.
Proserpina is the last song Kate McGarrigle wrote. Performed by Martha it is amazing. With sparse arrangement, the melody is haunting; the lyrics exude the bitterness of death. The band provide choral harmonies as the song builds to a crescendo with Martha wailing manically yet beautifully, like a woman mourning a loss almost too much to bear. The intensity is heightened by the song’s chorus plea “come home to mother.”
The encore is minus the band and better for it. Husband Brad accompanies Martha on piano for a throaty and raw Stormy Weather before it is Martha again alone with guitar for This Life, another catchy folky highlight from her debut album. Then she’s off, whipping her skirt up for a flash of her knickers as she exists the stage.
Bonkers, hugely entertaining, and that voice! No need for the band next time Martha.