Remember the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus reminds Charlie Brown about love, goodwill, peace and hope? “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” Linus says simply.
It seems Steinway Artist Rufus Wainwright got the message.
This month, along with his sister Martha, the larger-than-life Wainwright will continue a feel-good holiday tradition started by his late mother Kate McGarrigle—a tradition that focuses on family, friends and all the peace the holiday season can deliver. The Wainwrights’ “Christmas 101” performances will feature eclectic seasonal carols performed in French and English by McGarrigles, Wainwrights and musical friends. The shows, which have been staged since Kate launched the concept in 2005, will take place in California this year on three nights: December 19 in Oakland’s The Fox Theater and December 21 and 22 in UCLA’s historic Royce Hall, one of America’s great concert venues. The Wainwrights will also host a post-show gala each night to benefit the Kate McGarrigle Fund for sarcoma research.
The Wainwrights will share the stage with special guests including Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris, Van Dyke Parks and Carrie Fisher—not to mention the venerable nine-foot Steinway Model D concert grand that made its entrance to Royce Hall earlier this year. When Rufus Wainwright takes to that keyboard, he’ll be continuing a tradition that’s thrived in his family since they gathered around his grandmother’s 100-year-old Steinway upright each Christmas to sing carols together. And this was no ordinary family—this was the Wainwright-McGarrigle family, musical royalty, including Rufus’ father Loudon Wainwright III, his mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus himself, Martha, and any number of aunts, cousins and friends to add to the mix. “That old Steinway was very much the anchor of our victorious warship of music,” he says today. “It was always the centerpiece of our holiday.”
But childhood traditions notwithstanding, the “Christmas 101” shows represent a bit of a change in focus for the adult Rufus Wainwright, who was once known for emulating the decadently unrestrained Oscar-Wilde-inspired lifestyle of the metropolitan pop/rock star. “I was in that world for a long time,” he says during a recent interview. “I did—oh, whatever—I did all that. I hung out with Courtney Love,” he says, adding, with tongue firmly in cheek: “and did even worse things than that, if you can believe it.”
Times have changed. Over the past three years Wainwright lost his beloved mother Kate to cancer, married his partner Jörn Weisbrodt, became a father to Viva Katherine (her mother is Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca, who is Rufus’ lifelong friend) and released his seventh studio album, fittingly titled Out of the Game. He’s settling down now, by his own admission—reassembling his life to focus on marriage and parenthood. “We’re working hard to fit the proper role required to bring up a child, although the little angel grows up mainly with her mother,” he says. And Christmas, he says, feels like the right time to celebrate those changes—a movement toward family, quietude and reflection.
But it’s also a great time to have a party, he’s swift to point out. He’s quick, after a moment of pensiveness, to snap back into the funny, antic chatter for which he’s known and loved. “Oh god,” he says. “I get it from my mother. Toward the end, when she was very sick, she continued to want to do these Christmas shows. She did them to bring awareness to her disease and to raise funds for research, but she also did them as a way of having a good time, no matter what.” He laughs. “She was nonstop. The last show she ever did was the Christmas show, in Royal Albert Hall in London in 2009. It was completely sold out, one of the most amazing nights ever. Electric.”
“So we’re keeping the faith, Martha and I,” he continues. “We’re doing the shows in Kate’s memory and to raise money for sarcoma research. But it’s also just to have fun together. Both Martha and I live such busy lives and we have kids ourselves now. This is our way to get everyone together again, have a blast.”
Not to mention that the performance venues are just around the corner from nearly-two Viva, the newest light of his life. He smiles again. “Christmas is for kids,” he insists, sounding like a rather large kid himself. “And these shows, with my family and with Viva, help me remember that.”
OAKLAND/LOS ANGELES ALERT: Buy tickets today to see “Christmas 101” and attend post-show gala events, where you’ll mingle with Rufus and Martha Wainwright and their special guests. December 19 at The Fox Theater, Oakland and December 21 and 22, 2012, Royce Hall, UCLA. All proceeds benefit the Kate McGarrigle Foundation for sarcoma research.