Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, an ambitious but overreaching new project from Rufus Wainwright, aims to re-create Judy Garland’s famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert song by song. The endeavor is an intriguing one, and only an artist as confident and audacious as Wainwright would have a prayer at successfully recreating one of the great live musical documents of our time.
Wainwright’s ethereal voice, which injects his more contemporary folk and pop material with a unique operatic element, would seem well-suited to tackle the Great American Songbook. But while he shines on the ballads, Wainwright and his baritone seem meek and tenuous on numbers requiring a larger vocal presence. His vocal shortcomings are underscored by his duet with Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter, on ‘After You’ve Gone;’ Luft’s voice is marvelously loud, and she has the kind of Broadway belt that’s needed to tackle some of the more sprightly works of Gershwin and Porter. Wainwright’s voice is better suited to chamber pop and baroque, and he simply can’t compete.
But even if his voice is ill-suited for some of this material, it’s still a wonder to behold. Wainwright plays with pitch and rhythm in a way that few contemporary artists have the ability to do, effortlessly ascending and descending and tugging at tempo.
Wainwright is backed on the album by a 36- piece orchestra that’s consistently excellent even when the star falters. Still, even a band this good can’t salvage the performance when things go bad. When Wainwright can’t quite muster the full-bodied belt needed to pull off classics like ‘That’s Entertainment,’ the record quickly becomes dull, repetitive and thoroughly uninteresting.
While Garland’s performance has become iconic, the woman herself has become a sort of folk hero in the gay community. As a result, Wainwright’s rendition, complete with banter riddled with lazy innuendo, threatens to be overcome by camp. But the album is most disappointing because Wainwright continues to drift further afield from the recordings that made him a leading voice in folk and chamber pop. Those superb efforts, like his 1998 eponymous debut and 2001’s brilliant Poses, showcased the songwriting ability, beautifully lush production and vocal dexterity that made him a sensationally exciting new artist. Projects like last year’s Release the Stars and Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall fail to deliver on the potential of a once tremendously promising talent.