Published Nov 24, 2016Martha Wainwright's Toronto appearance in support of her new album, Goodnight City, was one of those album launch parties where someone forgot to bring the CDs (the merch table at the back of the Mod Club was covered by coats). "Please go and buy the record," Wainwright entreated, and I'm repeating her here: Go buy the record. It is incredible.
Live, Goodnight City, which is comprised of half originals by Wainwright and half covers written for her, was a different beast. Onstage, Wainwright's wild, rock'n'roll side took the reins, which led to some deliciously charismatic off the cuff stage banter, but also a lot of musical looseness (and lyrical fumbling) — Wainwright is still learning how to play live the covers she recorded; and it was the band's third gig together, max.
This spontaneity and discovery — which came across at times almost like gleeful recklessness — worked magic on some songs, notably on "Look Into My Eyes," by Anna McGarrigle, Lily Lanken and Wainwright, when singer Alex Samaras, from opening band Bernice (who sounded great, by the way) saved the day by a) wrestling two gin and tonics from some very unhelpful-seeming bar staff and b) going onstage for an impromptu bilingual duet with Wainwright; it also worked, but more tentatively, when Wainwright embarked on "Francis," written by her brother Rufus, after admitting that she's never confident about getting it right.
"Don't worry. I'm only ever winging it," she said, and we hung still-breathed on every hanging phrase and memory-searching pause supported by producer Thomas Bartlett's beautiful piano playing. She made it. Singing a difficult song needn't feel like a tightrope walk, but often it does, the first few times.
Wainwright delivered a generous set that, though it seemed to lose a few people mid-way, satisfied her true believers at the same time. She played most (but not all) of Goodnight City, as well as older songs like "Factory," "Year of the Dragon," "Bleeding All Over You" and "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole." She also played her mother Kate McGarrigle's "I Am a Diamond."
But it was a surprise Leonard Cohen cover in the encore — not a surprise that Wainwright would want to pay tribute to her iconic family friend, but more what and how — that was the real showstopper. Her and Bartlett's "Chelsea Hotel #2" was as vital as if the song had just been born. Wainwright squatted and swayed, holding up a lyric sheet she actually didn't really need that often in one hand, the mic in the other.
You could hear — line by shockingly honest, funny, sexy, human line — what a profound influence Cohen's songwriting must have had on her. It was tingle-inducing.