“I know you’re out there,” said Loudon Wainwright III, peering from the stage into the gloom of the well-filled house at the Egg’s Swyer Theater. “My demographic.” The 66-year-old singer-songwriter has long presented material so close to his own life that his coeval fans share a sense of growing up with him.
Which means that those of us anywhere near his age could appreciate the patter-song list of drugs that, as he further explained, “I’m either on or will be taking later tonight.” As the song concludes: “You’ll need something stronger than your Advil and Aleve/If you want to eat and sleep and piss and crap and shutup and breathe!”
The comic side of Wainwright was honed by his love of Broadway show masters like Frank Loesser (whose publishing company put out Wainwright’s early work); the folk side grew under the influence of Woody and Pete by way of Dylan, as the young Westchester County resident hit the coffeehouses as one of the “New Dylan” generation. But his work soon veered to a unique brand of confession, shot through with irony, given to literate imagery and wordplay as it charted the travails of marriage and fatherhood and dealing with one’s own parents and, yes, even roadkill.
Friday’s concert at the Egg had a more focused tone than any other of the many Wainwright performances I’ve seen. It could be attributed to the theme, as he put it, of “death and decay,” but I suspect it’s a matter of at least coming of terms with the legacies of father and son.
Loudon Wainwright Jr., the singer’s father, was an acclaimed writer whose work appeared regularly in Life magazine. Twenty years ago, LWIII wrote “A Handful of Dust” to words by his father; the recent album Older Than My Old Man Now ruefully recognizes that the younger Loudon has passed the age at which his father died, and incorporated a reading of some of the father’s reflections on aging.
More such readings provided an emotional backbone for Wainwright’s generously long set. Following a new song, “Dog in the City,” deftly chronicling the need both for dogs and lovelorn men to walk outdoors, he performed from memory an essay by his father titled “Another Sort of Love Story,” which ran in a 1971 issue of Life and bravely ventured into E.B. White’s “Death of a Pig” territory with a moving description of a dog’s life and death.
This is new territory, but so convincingly done (and the elder Wainwright’s writing is so impeccable) that it opened up new emotional vistas in the family-centric arena in which our Loudon works and plays.
Three songs into the set, he sang “Surviving Twin,” from the CD Last Man on Earth, a song about the similarities Loudon discovered between himself and his dad: “You look just like your father did/With that beard someone said./I answered back I am him/Even though my old man’s dead.” Following a brief reading of his father’s material, he gave us the poignant, almost angry “Older Than My Old Man Now.” And he’s old enough to reach far back for breathtaking irony: “Over the Hill,” written with ex-wife Kate McGarrigle and recorded for but dropped from the album Unrequited, looks at geriatrics from the callow perspective of a not-yet 30-year-old, making for a keen contrast.
Also dating back—about 40 years—was “Dilated to Meet You,” a plaintive, humorous anticipation of Kate and Loudon’s first child, Rufus. Which was followed by a new song, “The Idea of Us,” written last summer in lieu of a wedding toast to celebrate the marriage of Rufus and Jörn Weisbrodt.
As an encore, a reading of the last paragraphs from his father’s final column, “Mad about Maps,” and then the song “A Father and a Son,” in which anyone with a male relative will find resonance. Something gentler seems to have eased into Wainwright’s work. I don’t think he’s left all the anger behind, but he’s certainly showing more acceptance—which makes for an entertaining, thought-provoking show.