Martha Wainwright, review: a surprise superstar guest crowns a ramshackle, irresistible gig

Martha Wainwright at Cadogan Hall - Lorne Thomson/Redferns
Martha Wainwright at Cadogan Hall - Lorne Thomson/Redferns

This ranks as one of the most fabulously chaotic gigs I’ve ever seen. Martha Wainwright – daughter of folk legends Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and sister of torch song troubadour Rufus – played a two-hour set in which instruments went out of tune, drinks were spilt on stage, her two young sons came on for homespun duets, and her own guitar was, it seemed, unplugged for the entire event.

The fact that Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall was peppered with empty seats only added to the ramshackle feel of the evening. But, my goodness, it was entertaining. What it lacked in slickness, it made up for in heart. And it ended with a humdinger of a special guest.

As you might expect from a member of such a musically revered family, Wainwright is a born performer.The 46-year-old’s voice on Wednesday evening was rich, her confessional songs engaging, and her recited extracts from her new memoir, Stories I Might Regret Telling You, suitably acerbic. Wainwright has had a tough few years in a tumultuous (if outwardly gilded) life: she divorced her producer husband in 2018 and has always felt like the least loved member of her family.

She told us how her father let her know as a teenager that he didn’t want her at first and pressured her mother to have an abortion. She spoke of her rivalry with Rufus and how, on garbage collection day in her hometown of Montreal, she’d occasionally chuck out paintings of him that fans had sent in to the family. But this candour was delivered with wit and warmth. Power too. Taking to the stage in a blue Tinkerbell dress, she ripped into the old standard Stormy Weather. The line about it raining all the time now that “my man and I ain’t together” was infused with a steely strength. She came across like a folk Chrissie Hynde.

Songs such as Getting Older and Love Will Be Reborn, their subject matter obvious, showcased Wainwright’s athletic voice even more: she proved capable of breezy delicacy one moment and alacritous runs of belting notes the next. I’d argue, in fact, that Rufus’s younger sis wins when it comes to vocal versatility. Talking of relatives, this was very much a family affair. Not only did Wainwright cover Rufus’s Dinner at Eight (“I wish I’d written it”), but she brought out her sons Arcangelo and Francis (aged 12 and eight respectively) for a version of Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa.

Martha Wainwright at Cadogan Hall - Lorne Thomson/Redferns
Martha Wainwright at Cadogan Hall - Lorne Thomson/Redferns

They were charming and confident: I wonder if they knew that music luminaries including the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and the late Nick Drake’s producer Joe Boyd were sitting in the audience. There was a lovely sense of the family baton being passed on when Arcangelo returned to play bass on Loudon’s song Thanksgiving. Perhaps a third generation of professional Wainwright musicians should be expected.

Throughout, there was a sense of things teetering on the brink of chaos: Wainwright rummaged through her guitar case for lyrics; the lead for her acoustic guitar appeared very much unplugged; some of her bandmates’ casual attire suggested they’d nipped out for a cup of coffee rather than to play a gig. But it actually brought a sense of authenticity to proceedings, as if that were needed.

Then, at the end, something extraordinary happened. An audience member rose from his seat and joined her onstage: it was The Who’s Pete Townshend. They played a glorious cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now which had many of those watching wiping away the tears. It was quietly stunning. And it merely added to the rambunctious surrealism of a truly memorable evening.

Until August 13;