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Wainwright embraces humor and sadness

September 08, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Loudon Wainwright III is nothing if not self-aware: "Death and decay! My favorite topic," he declared at Largo on Saturday after singing "A Guilty Conscience and a Broken Heart," a wry fantasy about seeing an ex-lover in the morgue, dead of the titular causes.

That subject matter wasn't even new to the folkie singer-songwriter when he wrote "Dead Skunk" more than 30 years ago. But it seems as if he's learned something new about it every day since. Throughout the show, celebrating the release of his new live album, "So Damn Happy" (recorded last year, mostly in this same club), Wainwright took fresh looks in the mirror, song-wise, seeing his own mortality in his graying hair and sagging flesh -- his words Saturday, one day after his 57th birthday.

But his reflections revealed much more, set as always in a chain of memories of childhood, family and a seemingly endless supply of romantic disasters, all dissected with various mixings of wicked whimsy and wistfulness.

Saturday, though, larger events also fell into his observations, notably with two unreleased recent songs. "Hank and Fred" movingly played off his being en route to visit Hank Williams' grave in Montgomery, Ala., earlier this year when he heard news of Fred Rogers' death. And "No Sure Way" chronicled his first subway ride under the World Trade Center site after the terrorist attacks two years ago, channeling his anger, grief and confusion into the kind of personal poetry and vivid storytelling that eluded Bruce Springsteen on "The Rising."

Performing solo (plans for "surprise" guests, including son Rufus, fell victim to the show having been postponed a few days so Wainwright could do an acting turn in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator"), Wainwright was as always the funniest guy in the room -- mugging and wagging his tongue more than Gene Simmons -- and the saddest. Long may he decay.

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