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A Tribute to Kate McGarrigle

Two generations salute a 'great North American songwriter'

"A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle," presented May 12 and 13 at Town Hall in New York, achieved its three goals beyond any reasonable expectation. It raised money for the Kate McGarrigle Sarcoma Research Foundation, dedicated to fighting the poorly understood "orphan cancer" that killed her early in 2010, and headed by Rufus and Martha Wainwright, her two children with her long-ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III. It demonstrated, in the words of Joe Boyd--who produced Kate's first two records with her sister Anna, now re-released with a bonus disc as part of Nonesuch's superb Tell My Sister mini-box--that Kate was "one of the great North American songwriters." And full of feeling and devoid of sentimentality, it mourned her. But, in addition, the concert mounted musical and conceptual challenges worthy of a great North American songwriter.

Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel" is the most renowned song either sister ever wrote, and at Town Hall, Anna was the presiding matriarch--inspired and irreplaceable, because who else was going to guess that a missing accordion was somewhere in the vicinity of Martha's missing bra? But in the duo, Kate was still the prime mover. Both sisters knew music--Anna had to be summoned from Montreal in 1974 to show Linda Ronstadt the changes to "Heart Like a Wheel," and Emmylou Harris told Town Hall the second night that only Kate could get her to write a song with more than three chords in it. But the sisters wrote differently. Where Anna's heart was on a ship out in that ocean, Kate could break yours with bare declaratives like "Go leave/She's better than me" or "He's that first born son, he's that son of a gun/Just hates to walk, just loves to run."

The subject of that song--although Kate denied it, and Loudon is also a firstborn son--is almost certainly Rufus. At 37, he's a major gay icon, a beautiful man with a gorgeous voice and the rare showbiz kid who's bigger than his parents. But few showbiz kids are implicated in their families the way Rufus and Martha are, because the McGarrigles put family first in music that cultivated a homemade aura. They toured only sporadically, and collaborated when they could with blood kin and a circle of Montreal intimates that dated back to the '60s but incorporated newer pals like Harris and even Loudon. There was every reason to expect that "A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle" would gather this tribe, and it did--but with a major exception, and many major additions.

The concert certainly celebrated the genius of Kate McGarrigle. She couldn't have asked for better. But she also couldn't have imagined the shape it would take. This was Rufus' show--a Rufus grief-stricken and a little obsessed, but also a Rufus who's the new head of the family. And though Aunt Teddy Wainwright saw to logistics and Aunt Sloan Wainwright sang "Blues in D" in C, that means the McGarrigle family. Loudon was conspicuously absent, although as legendary McGarrigles helpmeet Chaim Tannenbaum reminded the youngsters with whom he sang Loudon's "Swimming Song," he was "richly implicated in the events of the evening." The younger generation, moreover, was represented not primarily by Anna's kids Lily and Sylvan Lanken, their modest performances steeped in the old quasi-amateurism. Instead we met three other second-generation musicians whose parents divorced young: Richard and Linda Thompson's son Teddy, Geoff and Maria Muldaur's daughter Jenni, and Ravi Shankar's daughter Norah Jones (note too that Rufus and his longtime partner are raising a daughter whose mother is Leonard Cohen's daughter Lorca Cohen). The other under-40s were all Rufus' fellow divas: transitional transsexual Justin Vivian Bond, hard-belting Kansas City-born Parisian Krystle Warren, and awkward angel Antony Hegarty.

Musically, the consequences were dramatic--in fact, melodramatic.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle were always understated. Except for Jones, Rufus' new jacks never are, and neither, God knows, are the show's centerpieces. Martha is a torchy chanteuse currently promoting an Edith Piaf album, and Rufus' preening and crooning--that is, the slides and melismas with which he adorns every line he sings--can try the tolerance of unbelievers. But his adoration and admiration were equally palpable as he cherished his mother's vinegary tunecraft, making a case for the power and acuity of these songs not just as family treasures, but out in the world where they now must live. This is how culture progresses--through reinterpretation, seizure, misprision. It was thrilling if also somewhat shocking to see this progress happen in front of your eyes.

There were misfires and worse: The soul-soaked enthusiasm with which Warren attacked Kate's cynically irresolute "I Don't Know" made one wonder if she'd ever copped to a second thought in her life. But many of these interpretations were transformational. Bond gave "Work Song" a chop-till-you-drop beat, Thompson delivered every word of the detail-chocked "Saratoga Summer Song," and the otherworldly Hegarty instantly proved the right guy to go head to head with Kate's impeccable "Go Leave." That could be her greatest song, though it would be silly to do a count, and Hegarty's devotional concentration did it justice--although note that unlike Kate he just couldn't resist repeating the final "Hearts have a way of calling/When they've been true" for climactic effect.

But Rufus and Martha were the stars, and they lived up to the responsibility when they joined Muldaur to aver that Southern boys knocked them off their feet, when Rufus double-teamed "I Cried for Us" with Hegarty, when Martha took on the familial burden of both "First Born" and "Tell My Sister." And the best came last, when Rufus' subdued solo-with-piano reading of Kate's unrequited proposition "Walking Song" phrased "Talk about the folks both living and dead" just right and changed the tentative "Be my lover, be my friend" to the have-it-all "Be my lover and be my friend," and when Martha risked "Matapedia," which in its original form begins with the now-lost Kate describing Martha's adolescent encounter with one of Mom's old boyfriends. The encores were perfect: first the Montreal inner circle's individualized takes on the traditional "Fare Thee Well," then the ensemble rocking the avowedly non-rock 'n' roll "Love Over and Over." But what defined this inspirational event was two kids claiming their beloved mother's most intimate possessions as their own.

[Editor's note: "A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle" was filmed by Lian Lunson (director of the Leonard Cohen profile "I'm Your Man") for a forthcoming documentary on the songwriter's life.]

MSN Music, May 16, 2011