Rufus Wainwright and Jose Gonzalez played the Orpheum – 9/29

Troubadours Rufus Wainwright and Jose Gonzalez teamed up for a fall tour that hit Boston’s Orpheum last Wednesday.

I dimly recall a distant past wherein a night out downtown involved dipping out of the office a few minutes early, grabbing a beer and a burger at Silvertone and strolling up to theater doors a few minutes before showtime. Fewer lines, fewer masks, certainly fewer vaccination checkpoints. Silvertone – arguably the only affordable and friendly bar in eyesight of Park Street – is thankfully back online, but venturing to this neck of the woods serves to illustrate how different the experience surrounding showgoing feels these days. Tremont Street is tentative; the energy’s off. This particular part of the city, where I commuted every day before COVID (and an ill-timed layoff), where I rarely have occasion to go anymore, is my personal symbol for the great cosmic time warp we collectively stepped through to get from early 2020 to now, along with whatever psychic toll we paid along the way.

All of which is to say, in long-winded fashion, that I felt a little strange about heading to my first show at the Orpheum in almost two years. By the end of the night though, the duo of Swedish-Argentinian singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez and American-Canadian songsmith Rufus Wainwright had me grateful to be back in the theater’s well-worn confines.

Much of the live music I’ve covered this year (here and elsewhere) has been of either the open-air or rock club variety. The nature of the pandemic dictated this, naturally: outdoor gigs were the safest initial option, and indoor gatherings were always going to happen in small rooms before big ones. And I was not complaining! I undoubtedly missed club shows the most of all during lockdown, and piling back into a cramped row of fold-ups trying not to spill a $20 drink was not so high on my list. Wednesday night served as a reminder that there is something to be said, however, for taking a seat at a concert hall that dates back to the 1850s (!) and allowing the music of someone like Jose Gonzalez to simply wash over you.

The acoustics of a room like the Orpheum are tailor-made for a show like this one, centered on a co-headlining pair that eschewed volume and embraced a less-is-more approach. Much like the last time I saw him, across town at Berklee, Gonzalez commanded the room with nothing more than a pair of acoustic guitars and the gentle swoon of his voice. He’s not a showy performer – seated, often backlit, focused on the task at hand – but there’s a magnetism to his stage presence nonetheless. His 15-song set cast a spell over a modest but appreciative crowd, drawing from September’s Local Valley (his first LP since 2015) and touching on a few of his beloved covers. Turning-the-beep-boop-song-acoustic is generally a concept best left abandoned in the untamed wilds of YouTube, but Gonzalez actually does something transformative with The Knife’s “Heartbeats” and Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which closed the set. Less radical but also satisfying was his take on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the result of a choose-your-own-adventure audience participation poll.

Minimalism is Gonzalez’s M.O., but by all accounts the stripped-down 4-piece band that accompanied Rufus Wainwright would not have been his first choice. In one of many chatty asides, Wainwright detailed plans for an elaborate lineup more than double that size, aided by set and costume changes, to bring his 2020 record Unfollow the Rules to the stage. Fate (and COVID) did not have that in the cards, but the less ornate approach hardly detracted from the performance. Wainwright is a born showman, and even without the theatrical trappings, his set took on the mood of a Vegas revue. He rotated from grand piano to acoustic guitar to unfettered frontman throughout, backed in stately fashion on keys, electric guitar and double bass by his (still costumed, at least) band. Wainwright’s sonorous voice is truly his gift, and it, too, sounded pretty incredible in here.

Less revue-esque was a setlist that trended almost entirely toward those new songs, which, though they sounded lovely, might’ve disappointed those hoping for more of a career-spanner. A flashback to the title track of 2001’s Poses highlighted the set’s second half though, and even if his Shrek-soundtracking “Hallelujah” was nowhere to be found, Wainwright treated the audience to their fill of Leonard Cohen with a spirited “So Long, Marianne.” Gonzalez joined him onstage for that one, plus a more subdued run through Neil Young’s “Harvest,” to effectively tie the evening together.

Yes, things still feel weird in downtown Boston, but like so many other pandemic-era phenomena, such weirdness as it pertains to a night out at ye olde concert hall will eventually fade to something resembling normalcy. Wainwright and Gonzalez were not a bad duo to get that ball rolling with.

Check out a short gallery from Gonzalez’ set below, though unfortunately none from Wainwright’s. (His photo release was a bit much for me.)