27 January 2016
Night-time melodies for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys from The Wainwright Sisters
The Wainwright Sisters
City Halls, Glasgow, Monday 25 January, part of Celtic Connections
Side by side onstage in matching striped pinafores over skinny jeans, the sisters Martha and Lucy sheepishly introduce themselves. Martha apologises for their dorky “uniforms”, explaining that their brother, the baroque pop singer turned opera composer, Rufus Wainwright delights in finding them the ugliest stage outfits to wear. Taking their acoustic guitars as they start tuning for the first song, Martha mumbled another disclaimer, “We don’t know any of these songs.”
“We don’t know each other,” chimed in Lucy, barely raising her head, or her voice.
The stream of self-effacing caveats continues through the show, drily lowering the audience’s expectations with a mix of faux mortification and ham-amateurism. In reality, their sorry shtick not only works well as a deft crowd-warmer, it turns out to be completely unnecessary too.
Lucy Wainwright Roche’s appearance ends up seeming like a bonus, after Celtic Connections festival had announced the day before that she would have to cancel, after snowstorms in New York meant she couldn’t leave the city.
Like a twisted and dark update on 1950s sister act Patience and Prudence, or a gently demented variation on the Swedish singers First Aid Kit, the Wainwright Sisters’ double act chews up country, blues, folk and lounge references, sweetly spitting them out as glorious harmonies. The pair are a product of a sort of musical super-family; both sharing the same father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. Like him, the half sisters prefer the warts-and-all, gallows humour end of the folky singer-songwriter spectrum, and have produced what they call their collection of “terribly morbid lullabies”.
Lucy Wainwright Roche has obviously inherited her mum’s knack for a girl group harmony – Suzzy Roche has performed with her sisters as The Roches since the seventies, and recently toured the UK, singing with her daughter. Martha Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian folk singer, also performed with her sister, Anna McGarrigle, so for Martha and Lucy, although they hadn’t performed together until a couple of years ago, it’s as if the songwriting was always on the wall.
Tonight’s set is made up of tracks from last year’s duet album Songs in the Dark, as well as solo slots of original songs from each singer. The theme for the album was the lullaby, although in their version, the night-time melodies are for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys, as well as one they describe as “a hostile baby rocking song”, for when a child won’t stop howling in the night and “you want to punch the baby in the mouth.”
Martha’s vocal is a gymnastic, theatrical thing; keening and warbling with wonderful reedy, raspy flourishes, while Lucy’s stays straighter and truer; a warm and crystalline counter to her sister’s, dovetailing in and around Martha’s Kate Bush wails or Dolly Parton quirks.
Flitting from the campfire to the cabaret bar, the double act have been told that tonight is Robert Burn’s Night, so Martha turned to the work of traditional Scots singer and folk archivist, Ewan MacColl for inspiration and found his 1959 version of Burns’ Ay Waukin O’ for them to cover. Their a cappella tribute is an eerie, haunting highlight, as is their unexpected cover of pan pipe favourite, El Condor Pasa, and their father’s Lullaby, a gentle, folky exercise in acerbic self-loathing.
Martha, who gave a few spoilers to her true feelings about her dad in her 2004 EP, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, seems to have mellowed since then, but can’t resist some snark when she points out nonchalantly that his lullaby was all about himself.
A bit like Martha’s own scene-stealing cameo alongside Frances McDormand in HBO’s miniseries Olive Kitteridge, where Wainwright played an ageing barroom piano player, the Wainwright Sisters are full of surprises. Comforting and creepy ones. Despite their gauche protests about being uncomfortable and unprepared up onstage, they are clearly neither, and the Glasgow crowd lets them know it.
Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).