Typically, any ink on Loudon Wainwright III starts with a requisite mention of how criminal it is that the singer isn't better known and more widely embraced for his remarkable talents as a songwriter and performer. Yawn! I will spare you that particularly tiresome bit of rehash. Instead I will question the very existence of a just and caring God in a universe where Loudon Wainwright III isn't revered as a giant among mere mortals, someone in the company of Homer (the poet, not the Simpson) or William Blake. After all, his lyrics have all the hallmarks of heroic poetry, marked as they are with alcoholism, dysfunction, neurosis, bitterness and a wit so biting it could cut through titanium.
While his studio efforts are typically strong (particularly his most recent The Last Man on Earth), it's in a live setting that Wainwright truly shines. Having seen him perform nearly ten times over the past 15 years, I can honestly say he never disappoints. The proof can be found on his excellent new live disc, So Damn Happy.
The singer-songwriter began the evening at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music with two brand new songs, each considering one of his grandparents. The song for his grandmother painted a portrait of a woman brash and straightforward, who had little time for the standard grandmotherly trappings, and perhaps for that very reason she was dearly loved and admired. "The First Loudon" addressed a grandfather Wainwright never knew but still identifies with. In the song, Loudon III connects with a befuddled and angry energy he divines in old photos. Both tunes were marked with the best qualities of Wainwright's most singular gift: the ability to cut to the heart of the most complex human relations and emotions, using only a few verses.
These songs also initiated a theme of mortality that returned throughout the evening, notably in a wrenching song about graveyards, and a truly brilliant ode to the best in humanity, "The Day Fred Rogers Died." Yet, while occasionally melancholic, the predominant vibe was humorous. Always a deft hand with a crowd, Wainwright kept the laughs coming, sometimes evoking a stand-up routine with songs like "Heaven," "Tonya's Twirls," and "IDTTYWLM
(I Don't Think That Your Wife Likes Me)."
Fielding requests for tunes from the depths of his song bag, Wainwright clearly was in his element. While he may change record labels like Celine Dion changes costumes in her Vegas show, Loudon really does seem "damn happy." Or at least as close as he gets.