It was a night of dichotomies from the start. In New York, where privacy is scarce, a "private" show like the hour-long set Rufus Wainwright played at the Rose Bar Monday night translates to a celeb-clogged affair. Indeed, Susan Sarandon perched nonchalantly at a small table across from Michael Kors, while Drew Barrymore and Scarlett Johansson mingled nearby.
A black Steinway, hulking and glamorous, perched overbearingly on a tiny stage, with long stemmed red roses scattered at its feet.
Sometime around 9:40 Wainwright emerged, elegantly casual in a black blazer and glittering broach.
He began with the arpeggio storm of "Who Are You New York?" the first single from All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (Decca), Wainwright's sixth studio album, a pastiche of personal reflections and cultural inspirations which will see it's US release on April 20.
Afterwards he grinned and said: "I'm really nervous because I'm about to be thrown into a fire," as he glanced with feigned nervousness toward the fireplace behind the piano.
That amalgam of wit and morosity cloaked Wainwright's set. He introduced a song about his sister, Martha, and one about his boyfriend, Jörn Weisbrod, with pointed, tender jabs at them for being absent from the show.
"How could someone so bright love someone so blue? Guess the world needs what I have and what you do," Wainwright sang of his German beau, squinting ceilingward and rolling his head gently. For Martha: "There's no room to be angry at each other anymore. It's your brother calling." Then he scaled the keys upward to a crescendo, paused, and resumed with renewed softness: "Call me back."
The evening reached both it's most beautifully raw moment -- and the point where everything nearly fell apart -- when Wainwright sang "The Dream," a song that he had never attempted live.
It was a gorgeous song, one that began with a few simple chords and twisted into something epic-sounding, as Wainwright manipulated the melody into shimmering trills and swooping complexity, then returned to the original chords. It was the one instance where Wainwright -- an exceptionally talented, effortless entertainer -- sweat a bit under the vocal stress of his ambitious composition.
More than once he stopped or slipped. He made a joke of it, purposely slurring over a line of lyrics, but then easily regained emotional intensity as he sang: "The Dream has come and gone."
When he finally summited this Everest of a song, lapsing into a solemn and soft finish, the room erupted into a flurry of applause.