Rufus Wainwright and his eight-piece band perform at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Calif.
Photo: Dave Vann
Rufus Wainwright begins his set in near darkness at Oakland’s Fox Theater. Only the lowering of the house lights and the glimmer of a handful of flickering candles tell the audience that the artist is about to begin. Next it’s a soaring, a cappella performance of “Candles,” a song from Wainwright’s latest album, Out of the Game: “I tried to do all that I can,” Wainwright sings, “But the churches have run out of candles.”
The solemn spell is soon broken. After “Candles,” the color lights flash on, and there’s Wainwright, decked out in glam shades, a tuxedo jacket and gold lamé trousers, swaying and singing “Rashida,” one of the great pop songs on Game.
It’s a perfect start for a Wainwright concert; the son of singer/songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle has a rich musical heritage, and a repertoire that ranges from opera and traditional pop to rock ’n’ roll and beyond. Onstage, he weaves easily from his own lush, thoughtful originals to his parents’ folk songs and back.
Wainwright shares the stage with an eight-piece band: outstanding backing vocalists Charysse Blackman, Krystle Warren and Teddy Thompson (who also plays acoustic guitar); keyboardist Andy Burton; saxophonist Tim Ries; drummer Ben Perowsky; bassist/musical director Brad Albetta; and electric guitarist Sharief Hobley. There’s a boatload of talent on that stage, and Wainwright is a generous performer, even giving up the spotlight to Warren and then Thompson at one point, for each of them to sing a cover of a Kate McGarrigle song.
But a lot of the focus in Wainwright’s current tour is on the new record. “The new album has a lovely, old-school ’70s feel to it,” says Wainwright’s front-of-house engineer Suneil Pusari. “My aim is to keep that warmth, space and groove to it.”
Pusari, who has been on Wainwright’s tours for five years, has also worked with a range of artists including Snow Patrol, DJ Shadow, Gomez and Rufus’ sister Martha. He’s currently mixing Wainwright’s shows on an Avid VENUE Profile. “At the moment, we’re doing one-off and promo shows before the proper run of shows begins. We’re also doing quite a few fly shows and picking up boards locally, so the Profile is ideal, as it is so easily available, and I’ll always have a show on a USB stick with me.
Suneil Pusari is Rufus Wainwright’s front-of-house engineer.
Photo: Dave Vann
“I do tend to use quite a bit of outboard also, to warm things up,” Pusari continues. “On this show I like to use [Empirical Labs] EL-8 Distressors on drums, mainly kick and snare. They have so much control over attack and thickness of sound that you can tonally control drum sounds so easily.”
Other key pieces in Pusari’s arsenal include Tube-Tech LCAs for bass and acoustics, and a Summit DCL-200 on the grand piano that Burton and Wainwright each play at different times in the show. “This softens the transients that you get from harmonics within an acoustic grand that microphones tend to exaggerate, and to have some nice valves in your chain doesn’t hurt,” Pusari says.
Pusari has to be flexible, however, because it’s not always practical to carry all of the rack pieces he would choose. “I also have my show file set up to do everything onboard the Profile, for countries where finding high-end outboard just isn’t an option,” he says. “So, when this happens, there are a few plug-ins I like to use to help achieve a similar sound. I like the Phoenix Crane plug-in, especially on acoustics. Most of all, I love Massey plug-ins, especially the TapeHead tape-saturation simulation; that brings a warmth to the instruments and a certain soft space that I think is missing on most digital desks.”
Pusari also carries an Apogee Big Ben word clock and a Dolby Lake tablet for system tuning. The tour is using house P.A. systems, but they are carrying all of their own mics and monitors.
On that grand piano, Pusari uses the Earthworks PM40T piano mic system, which comprises two mics and an adjustable bar, plus a Neumann TLM 103 in the middle and an SM91 at the low end: “I use the Earthworks for the main sound and continually change the blend of the TLM 103 for warmth and the 91 for attack,” he says. “This gives me greater control over tone, phase and how the piano sits in the mix.”
That warm, elegant piano sound is one of the most important elements onstage, as Wainwright will perform solo at the piano at different points, playing intimate songs of his own such as “The Art Teacher,” as well as songs borrowed from his folks, like McGarrigle’s “On My Way to Town.”
Monitor engineer Magali Couturier
Photo: Dave Vann
For Wainwright’s vocal, Pusari likes the openness and detail of the Shure KSM9. “Rufus’ range is quite large, not only dynamically but also tonally,” he says. “He will sing from his chest, his throat, his nose—the KSM9 manages to replicate this quite accurately without being too clinical. His voice can also be quite sibilant, so I like to compress his vocal in two stages: I sidechain an EQ to a Focusrite ISA 430 to act as a de-esser, ducking the whole signal level very fast—as compared with just the top end—then overall compression is through an EL-8 Distressor.
“We have so many great singers on this stage, the balance of the vocals is key to the whole personal nature of the show,” Pusari continues. “I’ve also been working closely with Brad Albetta on highlighting each song’s musical strengths, be that a certain harmony or keyboard line. There’s a lot of pushing faders and a lot of textural and special changes.”
Mixing monitors for this complex production is Magali Couturier, an eight-year veteran of Wainwright tours. She’s currently using a Midas Heritage 3000 board (though she says she prefers a Midas XL model when she can get one). She says she uses very little outboard: “Just some 31-band EQ, a few channels of compression, and [Lexicon] PCM81 reverb.”
The band is on L-Acoustics 115XT HiQ wedges. “With a 10-piece band onstage, quite tight together, I wanted a coaxial box with a narrow dispersion, and there’s no better box than these L-Acoustics, especially for this dynamic music,” Couturier says. “It’s a musical box for a very musical band.”
Couturier says she gets few specific demands from Wainwright. “He just wants to hear music,” she says. “The challenge for me is the ability to multitask—taking care of nine humans while never taking my eyes off of Rufus, as well as dealing with musicians swapping instruments or places. The key is to keep an open mind and not be too set in any way. Be the brain. You can’t just rely on a digital desk’s ‘brain.’”