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Rufus Wainwright at Orchestra Hall tonight: A somber ‘Lulu’ before the hits

If tonight’s stop in Minneapolis is like the other concerts on his current tour, Rufus Wainwright will demand that the crowd withhold its applause not only during the entire, in-order rendering of his new album, “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” but during his painstaking arrival and exit from the stage — in a black, feathery outfit no less — during that opening set.

This intensifies but does not deviate from Wainwright’s performance ethos. He blends a pompous ego and a desire for raw intimacy, two qualities that have fueled his muse and fostered one of the more distinctive and intriguing careers on the ever-crowded singer-songwriter circuit.  

“Songs for Lulu” was written as Wainwright’s mother, the offhandedly sage folksinger-songwriter Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle sisters, was dying of cancer. (Wainwright’s father is another renowned singer-songwriter, Loudon Wainwright III.) Having recently written an opera and re-created the 1961 stage performance of Judy Garland, Wainwright lost all the trappings to maximize the drama within the “Songs for Lulu.” Some of them address the tragedy head-on, such as the closer, “Zebulon,” and “Martha,” in which he urges his sister to go see and tend to their mother. Others are self-coping — there are three sonnets of Shakespeare set to music.

If that sounds hopelessly depressing, you’re underestimating Wainwright’s enormous gifts. He has an arresting, clarion voice, with an expressive range that can be funereal or swooning, and his phrasing is deployed with an acute blend of emotional intuition and cerebral anticipation. And his unabashed narcissism — at least partly borne of an against-the-grain gay pride that enables him to celebrate rather than shun his attraction to the most mundane stereotypes (Judy Garland?) — is intense and true enough to make the nakedly personal poignantly universal.

But Wainwright’s fans also cherish his less tragic revelations, loves, and peccadilloes, and so the second set takes a swipe at the signature songs in his catalog, like “Going to a Town” and “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” replete with catty and wry between-song streams of consciousness. Except for the closer, a cover of his mother’s “The Walking Song.” Afterward, the applause is optional, but not in doubt.

Here is his solo rendition of “The Dream” in concert in Europe in May.

Here is a version of “Martha” before the new album was released.

Here is “The Walking Song.”

Rufus Wainwright, with Martha Wainwright opening, at Orchestra Hall, tonight at 8; tickets are $26-$76.

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