Rufus Wainwright is at a most delightfully odd point in his career. Nearly 20 years after an eponymous-titled debut album, the boyishly handsome, effortlessly dynamic vocalist and composer continues to set the bar for compelling cabaret/chamber pop the likes of which haven't been rendered so stirringly since Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks collaborated.
While that may make mega-stardom impossible (he did try with 2012's Mark Ronson-produced Out of the Game), it's also opened Wainwright's aesthetic floodgate to a variety of non-pop projects. There's rarity of self-penned operas (Prima Donna, with a second, four-act-opera in the works), a brand new album of avant-classical compositions Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, and his famously covering of the catalog of Judy Garland as he will again at Carnegie Hall in June.
That he tied all of the above into a tightly staged solo late-night set at The Foundry - the Fillmore's smaller, second-floor room - on Friday proved how less is always so much more with Wainwright.
Kicking into his burnished brand of theater-song, Wainwright cooed a quartet of his own most cynically romantic, poetic tracks - "Grey Gardens," "The Maker Makes," "Out of the Game" and "Jericho" - before launching into his first, showy cover of the evening.
With an older, jangly pianist whose name I didn't catch (Wainwright handled most of the proceedings' piano playing and all of its acoustic guitar-strumming), the singer turned Arthur Schwartz's "That's Entertainment!" into something subtly schmaltzy and handclap-y with his bassoon-like croon in full flower.
Obviously warming up for June's Garland gigs ("tickets are still available" he hawked), Wainwright launched into gorgeously sophisticated Tin Pan Alley tunes associated with Garland such as the swaying, racing "Just You, Just Me" and "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)", a dear version of You're Nearer," as well as a quietly tender take on Gershwin's "A Foggy Day."
Once Wainwright returned to his own art songs, it was for the strummy "Want" and the Philip Glass-like "The Art Teacher" where his round vocals leaped from deep lows to piqued highs; all before touching upon a newest creation - the amber, free pop of "A Woman's Face (Sonnet 20)" and its immediate segue into the carnival-like "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk."
If there was any complaint at all, it was that Wainwright didn't perform more of that new album, instead heading into gloriously hammy Garland territory ("If Love Were All," a blissful "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" whose high notes soared with a zing), his always lustrous, holy version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and his own classically-inspired lullaby composition "Poses."
When asked why he was playing Fillmore's intimate Foundry rather than the big room, he joked that he was "in purgatory," before assuring the audience "don't worry, I'll be playing downstairs." Having Wainwright that up-close-and-personal makes waiting for the big room that much easier.