Loudon Wainwright tried to entice the mellow crowd at Chautauqua Auditorium on Wednesday night. Photo from MLive.com.
For some, he’s father to Rufus and Martha. For others, he’s the lonely dad who followed his kid to college in the underrated sitcom, “Undeclared.”
For most, yes, he’s Katherine Heigl’s gynecologist in “Knocked Up.”
For not enough, Loudon Wainwright is one of the most acerbic singer-songwriters of the past 40 years. And on Wednesday at the Chautauqua Auditorium (Barn!), he was funnier than most stand-up comedians. The old man (hey, he is 61) can also still play a pretty perfectly good guitar.
“Hey, he looks just like an old dude like us!” said an old dude in front of me when Wainwright took the stage.
His playful, caustically comic 80-minute set warmed up an already warm and dozy crowd for Wainwright’s friend and frequent collaborator Richard Thompson. Both tried to rouse the sleepy seniors in attendance with singalongs and banter, but Boulderites seemed resolute not to get into the requested groove.
Wainwright spent most of his time on what he called “passage of time” songs. More bluntly, he enthused, “death and decay is where it’s happening!” Ironically, many of his songs on the topic aren’t even new. One that is new was “Doing the Math,” from “Strange Weirdos,” music inspired by “Knocked Up.”
Wainwright’s combination of comic poignancy makes him seem more like David Wilcox’s father than Rufus Wainwright’s. No “Dead Skunk” (in the middle of the road) this night, but there was plenty of potency in the Dylan-esque anthem “Hard Day for the Planet” and plenty to ruminate about over his lyrics, “the days that we die are not that far away.” Counter that against the hysterical gloating of a man standing over the casket of a dead lover, and you get an idea of Wainwright’s wide mastery of lyric. When not singing about encroaching death, there were tunes about being a parent (Bein’ a Dad) and being a son (“White Winos”).
And while every songwriter has ruminated on why the night is long, Wainwright has registered a pretty good entry on the topic with, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just the middle of the night.”
He was joined for three songs by Thompson before ceding the stage to the Englishman who just put on a guitar-playing clinic. Wainwright introduced Thompson by saying, “Richard has played on a few of my albums,” to which Thompson deadpanned, “I’ve saved a few.” Their songs together included “Fly Paper” and “Final Frontier.”
Thompson’s set was a bit like more of the same, only better. He had good “class system” fun with the Chautauqua freeloaders who stood just outside the barn, watching for free, his easygoing demeanor belying his ferociously symphonic guitar constructions. Thompson showed off his own shy and intelligent wit with “I’ve Got the Hots for the Smarts.” By the time he got to “Vincent Black Lightning” and “Valerie,” his clinic was complete.
In all, this fine, mellow Wednesday was a combined three hours of great songwriting and better guitar.
John Moore is the theater critic for The Denver Post.