Review: Loudon Wainwright III

Richard Lutz takes his pew at Birmingham’s Town Hall for a concert by an old troubadour.


I can’t say I have had the best of luck when going to see old rockers from the sixties or seventies. Some are good. Some not: Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Buddy Guy, the remnants of The Allman Brothers.

Some are just museum pieces, relics that are half-petrified by age. An exception was Glen Campbell who, despite the onset of Alzheimers, played intricate and beautiful music while helped along by his daughter.

Now along comes folk singer, comedian, raconteur Loudon Wainwright III. And I’ll say he has fortunately not lost his bite, his wit, his story telling skills, after taking the stage for more than 45 years. He still has it. And that ‘it’ is the ability to tell a tale in his songs, to laugh at his own pretensions and advanced age (he’s 70) and to look back not so much in anger as quiet wry acceptance that sometimes things don’t work out with friends, lovers, careers, families. It was an engrossing show. A funny show.

Wainwright, of course, is as famous for his back catalogue as for his family: son Rufus, daughter Martha and ex-wife, the late Kate McGarrigle. But he didn’t depend too much on these blood ties though he did tell a long cute tale of when the family trooped off  together to Alaska to tour the wastes of that state (“There were only five places play,” he said, “four of them in Anchorage…”).

But what stood out  was  his bulls-eye reflections that don’t drown in sentimentality, his memories of grandparents, father, wives and offspring that  are cute but never mawkish.

With songs such as Half Fist, Harmless, The Doctor Song and Charlie’s Last Song, he ranged over a career that began in 1970 while writing songs and stories on his grandmother’s kitchen table. And there were takes on old classics too such as Tom Lehrer’s caustic song, The Old Dope Peddlar:

“He gives the kids free samples,
Because he knows full well
That today’s young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow’s clientele.”

There were tales a-plenty, especially when he approached the aged maternal head of the family to tell her she was going to be a great-grandmother and the newest addition was called Rufus. “Rufus,” she snorted, “That’s what you call a dog.”

Decades later, Rufus is doing quite well for himself. As is Martha. As is father Loudon Wainwright III.