Review: Martha Wainwright Gives Memorable Performance By Being Herself

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What a treat it was to see Martha Wainwright perform for the first time in four months, in her hometown, a few blocks from her house, at the Théâtre Outremont. The woman is a consummate performer, giving her all to the audience despite—or maybe because of?—the presence of her 10-week old baby backstage. Then again the show was a family affair: after performing solo for a good hour or more she was joined onstage by her husband Brad Albetta, and then also by her Aunts Anna and Jane McGarrigle, all of whom appeared in various permutations and combinations. Finally for the very last tune, Proserpina, her second encore, she was joined onstage by the aunts, the husband, the musicians from her opening act, Adam and the Amethysts, a few other unnamed people… and the baby. The tune was Proserpina, the last song written by her late mother, Canadian folk legend Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010, so the family tribute was fitting.

Proserpina is the first single from her latest album, Come Home to Mama, released in 2012. In my opinion it was the highlight of the show: haunting, raw, powerful, gut-wrenching. I’m still getting goosebumps days later thinking about it. Wainwright played several other songs from Come Home to Mama. Written in the wake of her mother’s death and the birth of her first child, the album is full of familial innuendo, grief, loss, and hope: motherhood, birth, death.

Although much of Wainwright’s power lies in her ability to communicate sorrow and other profound emotions, this was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Wainwright could just as easily be a stand-up comic as a musician. Showing up onstage with a pile of papers, a cardboard plate with random notes on it, and lyrics scribbled next to a drawing by her four-year old son on an oversized sheet, Wainwright was not afraid to be herself—a second-time new mother, disorganized, messy, probably more than a little bit tired. Her willingness not to hide made for some hilarious moments. While looking at her notes on the paper plate she said, “C’est même pas une blague, c’est juste déprimant.” She got a couple of jabs in at her husband’s late-night TV viewing habits, and his questionable housekeeping abilities. She told us that she had some of her songs translated into French for the fourth season of the TV series Trauma; she asked her friend to translate as directly as possible, and not to put any of her soul into it because she didn’t want to give her any credit or pay any royalties.

But of course the highlight of the night was the music. What a voice. In addition to songs from Come Home to Mama and her other albums, Wainwright performed covers of tunes by several legendary songwriters: Jesse Winchester, Harry Nilsson, Gerry Boulet (whom Wainwright called the John Lennon of Québec), and Angèle Arsenault (Je suis libre qu’est-ce qui m’empêche de bouger: what a great line!). She also did the jazz standard Stormy Weather, with Albetta on piano, in the middle of which she seductively lay down on the stage, and whispered, “I’m so tired… just kidding, just kidding!” Impossible not to want this woman to be your best friend.

Martha Wainwright performed at Théâtre Outremont on Friday April 18, 2014.