An unflinching songwriter takes a career-defining concept album to the stage
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
At 65, Loudon Wainwright III had every right to devote a two-and-a-half-hour Town Hall concert to "Older Than My Old Man Now," which so deserves the deadly sobriquet "concept album" that it effectively culminates his 42-year career. The songs signify individually and sequentially as they ponder mortality and poke jokily at old age, with special attention to Wainwright's father, who died at 63 in 1988 and separated from Loudon's mother well before that. The songs scored live, too. But not quite as much as we'd hoped -- in part because many of us couldn't help but remember the magnificent Celebration of Kate McGarrigle at the same Manhattan venue a year before. After all, we'd been there.
McGarrigle, whose songwriting sustained the sister duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle until she died in 2010, was the first of Wainwright's three wives and the mother of famous son Rufus and ambitious daughter Martha. Her songs formed the text of A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle, a tribute that passed her torch to Rufus and Martha and their cohort, who made her legacy their own as they certified it as a canon. Rufus and Martha and other family members were also on hand for Loudon's big night May 18. But the event was different, and so was the effect.
There are so many terrific lines on Wainwright's album that I admit noticing two of them only at Town Hall. The final couplet of a title song about the mixed blessings of living longer than your father did ends up remembering alpha spouse Kate: "Not only older than my old man ever was/But I'm guilty I've outlived my ex." The voice-with-piano meditation just before, "In C," ventures a rationale for these complex feelings in its next-to-last couplet: "And if families didn't break apart/I supposed there'd be no need for art." This truth is far less universal than a guy who studied Greek drama at Carnegie Tech might hope. But it's an excellent rationale for a personal obsession with domestic drama that surfaced with 1971's "Be Careful, There's a Baby in the House."
Half the new songs exemplified this m.o.: in addition to the two just-named standouts, "All in a Family" with Lucy Wainwright Roche (his daughter by singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, who also took her turn) and, with Rufus, "The Days That We Die," which focuses on coming to terms with your father/son but could also inspire a fella to steer a long marriage out of a rut. Right at home were two oldies from 2001's "Last Man on Earth": "Surviving Twin," about struggling to be free of the father who will always be a part of you, and the even twistier "White Winos," about getting drunk with your mother, with a sexual subtext that would wreck it were it any less wry or more explicit.
Not every Loudon song hit dead on at this concert, but all came close enough, from darkly pained ones like "Somebody Else" to painfully comic ones like "Double Lifetime," which was double-timed for the occasion. But since the rest of the album was played in order, it did seem odd that "Somebody Else" came way too early, which had the effect of diminishing the gravitas of the post-intermission half. I'm betting the order was changed primarily to get past the nephew who showed off his pipes subbing for Chris Smither, Loudon's duet partner on the album, and then became the first relative to sing one of his own songs -- which, well, could have been better.
Few of the young performers who thronged A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle last year were songwriters of note. But it didn't matter, because they were there to inject life into a departed titan's body of work, and that work lifted them. The Older Than My Old Man Now evening was designed to prove that a) Loudon Wainwright III wasn't dead yet, b) he'd just released a great album, and c) he was a benevolent paterfamilias eager to share the spotlight with a family he hoped not to alienate the way his old man had his. So everybody got a cameo, and all but a few of these were momentum killers. As life and love, this was probably the right move. Artistically, it dulled the luster of Wainwright's heroic survival and growth. There's a song subject for you.
So bless his sister Sloan, whose cameo came down bluesily on a useful, upful message: "Live out the best in your life." And don't underrate the unrehearsed encore. A bagatelle about a family's summer fun, Loudon's "Swimming Song" remained a McGarrigles favorite long after the divorce. In its way, it's as profound as anything on "Older Than My Old Man Now."
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.