Live Reviews

Loudon Wainwright III – Liberty Theatre, Dublin: Live Review

Westchester County’s favourite, oldest and best satirist, the world’s favourite six-string tragicomedian, Loudon Wainwright III visited Dublin on Sunday 11th September and received an ecstatic reception from locals and visitors alike.

It’s been a long time, two years in fact, since Loudon Wainwright III, Westchester County’s original and best satirist, last played in Dublin. Whilst he’s been away, the world has suffered a crippling pandemic, the Trump bubble has burst and Europe has started a process of fragmentation but, despite such minor worries (or, maybe, because of them) Dublin had stored up a rapturous welcome to meet the return of the great man.

The crowd that assembled in Dublin’s delightful Liberty Theatre – located on Eden Quay on the north bank of the River Liffey and just a stone’s throw from the throbbing tourist honeypots of Temple Bar – was a surprisingly cosmopolitan one. I’ve always reckoned that Loudon’s fanbase consists mainly of embittered aging male ex-hippies (a demographic into which I willingly slot myself…) – and, yes, we were there – but it was great to also see a good proportion of females and younger people amongst the sell-out crowd. OK – we were virtually all white Europeans, but the mix that attended was an encouraging sign that Loudon’s wry brand of social and cultural observation is capable of reaching beyond the congregation of the already converted.

Loudon’s current tour is a three-fold cause for celebration. Firstly, it’s great to welcome him back to our islands for yet another tour. I’d attended the show with a slight sense of foreboding that we may not get many more chances to see him over this side of the pond, and those forebodings weren’t exactly dispelled by the format of his set, which combined a choice selection of numbers from his excellent new album, Lifetime Achievement, with a lengthy dive into many of Loudon’s old and much-loved treasures. It almost seemed like a final farewell – I’ll come back to this point later. The second cause for celebration was that new album. At The Barrier raved about Lifetime Achievement when we received it for review, just a few weeks ago. It’s one of Loudon’s best, packed with great lyrics; there’s the obligatory songs of familial dysfunctionality, songs in which Loudon looks back on his long career and, most poignantly, songs in which he confronts his age.

This brings us to the third, and greatest, cause for celebration: Loudon turned 76 last week (Happy Birthday” called an audience member…) and, so far, he’s still going strong. But Loudon is the first to realise that there’s not many more such anniversaries to come – a point he makes with typical frankness in his song, How Old is 75? and that realisation is almost certainly one of the main reasons that he used the show to revisit so many of his past triumphs.

Loudon Wainwright III – Lifetime Achievement: Out now!

But let’s start the story of the evening at its beginning. Loudon’s support for the evening was the delightful Ellie O’Neil, a singer/songwriter from Co. Meath with a growing reputation and following. She’s been producing music now for around 12 years and, as with many introverted and thoughtful songwriters, the pandemic provided her with the opportunity to let the thoughts run free and mature into some beautiful tunes. which, hopefully, we’ll be able to enjoy on her debut album – due out anytime soon.

Ellie is shy and instantly likeable. Her songs are gentle and well-considered and, best of all, she sings like an angel with a voice that is velvet-smooth and sweet as the sweetest syrup. She doesn’t overdo the accompaniment, with songs backed by softly fingerpicked or gently strummed acoustic guitar, or by piano, where I got the impression she feels far more comfortable. There’s a lot of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in the way she constructs and delivers her songs and, like Joni in particular, I felt that she’d be far more comfortable singing her lovely songs in the privacy of her own room, but that made me feel all the more privileged that she’d chosen to share them with us.

Ellie O’Neil – Liberty Theatre, Dublin: 11th September 2022

It was either the weakness of the PA, the ambience of the room or – most probably – Ellie’s shyness that made it difficult to make out the titles of her songs as she announced them, but I did manage to make out the titles of a few favourites from her set, including opening number, Witness, the wonderful Sister Oversea – an ode to a Canadian friend with whom Ellie managed to stay in touch throughout the ravages of the pandemic and Ellie’s beautiful final song, Astral Queen. I loved Ellie O’Neil and, judging from the enthusiastic reception she earned, so did everyone else!

Shyness has never been a problem for Loudon Wainwright III. Nor will it ever be. He marched confidently onto the stage whilst the house lights were still up, to greet us with a raucous “Let’s see if we can make up for lost time!” and off we went into opening number Town and Country, the first of five selections from the new album. It’s a great song, and it continued the early evening theme of the pandemic and its effects, as Loudon recalled a first visit back to Manhattan after months of isolation in his home on Shelter Island, NY.

Life experiences have always been a huge inspiration to Loudon’s songs and the challenges he faced when he moved back to Los Angeles in the early noughties provided the subject matter for Grey in LA. An impending flood prompts the Wainwright family to take the necessary precautions and dread the time when “The whole house will smell like your wet dog.” It was all particularly poignant on a wet night in Dublin. Heaven, from the 2003 album, So Damn Happy has lost none of its impact. I always loved the song’s opening lines: “There’ll be lots of drinking in Heaven, smoking and eating and sex” and the audience was delighted – I also enjoyed Loudon’s introduction – the story of a gig at a working men’s club in Hebden Bridge, but you’d have to ask Loudon himself if you want more details.

After Dublin, Loudon’s 2022 tour takes him around the UK to such august venues as Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Bexhill-on-Sea and I found myself wondering if uncharacteristic discretion will prompt him to leave the hilarious POW out of his set for those shows (although, as this is Loudon Wainwright III that we’re talking about, maybe not…). For the purpose of the song, the initials POW stand for “Prince of Wales. and it’s a tongue-deeply-in-cheek song of support to the man who was, until last weekend, heir to the British throne. I did start to wonder whether, maybe, in view of very recent events, the line “I guess one day his mom will cough up that crown, But you can’t pin her down, now well can ya?” may not be greeted with the raucous laughter that it earned on Sunday night in the republican land of our neighbours. But then again…

As I’ve already noted, personal reflection and family relations have always played a large part in informing Loudon Wainwright III’s music and family reflections don’t come any more sentimental that the delightful Picture, a song in which Loudon describes a photograph of himself with his sister, taken back in the early 1950s, before going on to reflect on the circumstances of the photograph and the ravages that time has wrought since it was taken. Loudon sang it with conviction and the audience was spellbound. In fact, a feature of the entire evening was how closely the audience listened to Loudon’s lyrics, whether they were familiar with the particular song he was singing or not – and that’s the mark of a truly great songwriter.

Next came Fam Vac, a favourite song from Lifetime Achievement, in which Loudon threatens to “Pack up the car, load up the bike and the kayak, and leave the f*cking family at home” as he sets off on a family vacation that doesn’t include family members – and, again, the audience were in stitches.

Anecdotes have always been a major feature of Loudon’s live performance and, when he’s about to tell one, it’s wise not to choose that moment to pay a visit to the loo. One unfortunate gentleman disregarded this advice and received a sympathetic comment about how age diminishes bladder capacity. Understandably, we all held our breath – and bladders – after that! Loudon’s story tonight, including tips about preparing the necessary inputs to your own eventual obituary, was typically hilarious.

And the songs came thick and fast: White Winos, Hank and Fred and the appropriately reflective Four Mirrors, before Loudon moved over to his piano, first for the tragic Kick in the Head, a song from Loudon’s earliest days which he dedicated to the poet Peter Fallon, and then the enduring favourite, Song in C from Loudon’s acclaimed 2003 album, Older Than My Old Man Now – surely one of his all-time best! Daughter, a song that featured in Judd Apatow’s 2007 movie, Knocked Up, seems like a typically personal Wainwright family song, but, as Loudon was careful to admit, it was actually composed by Peter Blegvad – “A great guy – and very tall!” The song was yet another highlight of a fantastic evening and it was easy to see the impact that the lyrics – watching a young child playing in water – had on all of us who had experienced such a familiar situation.

Inevitably, the title track from the new album had to feature in the evening’s proceedings, and Loudon did it full justice. There’s some lovely lyrics as Loudon reflects on his life and concludes that, despite the awards and critical recognition that has come his way, his greatest achievement was finding a life partner.  And, as I’ve said before, when push comes to shove, that’s something we can all agree with. And the priceless No Man’s Land is, if anything, even better. The story of a dog whose life is split between the homes of separated ex-partners, It had me wondering, not for the first time, why we don’t listen to (or at least heed) the wise instincts of our animal friends more often.

And then came the free-for-all!

In the days when I still did gainful work in industry, I was once trained in the techniques of hosting a press conference. In particular, I was taught how to request questions from a mob of journalists and, from the inevitable cacophony that would follow, pretend that someone had called out the question that I REALLY wanted to answer. Well, I suspect that Loudon did something along very similar lines here, when he asked the audience for requests…

Swimming Song was an obvious choice, and there were probably people calling for it amongst the invited melee. The delightful Primrose Hill from 1998’s Little Ship album was less expected, but it’s an excellent song with lyrics, about being down on one’s luck in London, that resonate even more powerfully today than when they were written. The audience had been fired up and the requests were pouring forward. From my position in the auditorium, the most frequent requests seemed to call for either One Man Guy or Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House, but such calls when unheard (or they weren’t on the agenda) in favour of another genuine classic, 1971’s Motel Room – a song that has fascinated me for over 40 years.

I love the way in which Loudon confronts the remaining time that he has with us on the impossibly bittersweet How Old is 75? As I’ve said before (in other articles) lines like “In five years I’ll be eighty, I’ll hear the fat lady” pull no punches and actually demonstrate remarkable bravery and a comfortable acceptance of the inevitable. It’s a fantastic song and a highlight of the new album. But like life, a concert has a mortal span, and the lifetime of this one was reaching its end. There was just time for a couple more – another dose of bittersweet reflection in So Damn Happy and a fantastic ukulele-accompanied Fun and Free, the new album’s closing track. The self-deprecating humour was still there as Loudon struggled to adjust the mic to the level of his uke (“I’m the tightest act in show-business, folks!”) and it was the perfect way to end an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Loudon may be reflecting more and more upon his own mortality as the years continue to grind by, but he demonstrated in Dublin that he’s still got plenty to offer and plenty of life left yet. The predominance of old favourites within the setlist did get me thinking that we could be witnessing his Irish swansong, but let’s hope not. Loudon Wainwright III is loved deeply in these parts, and the audience weren’t hesitant in letting him know that – “We love you” and “Long live King Loudon” amongst the shouted messages of encouragement and I sincerely hope that Loudon takes such affection to heart. See you again maybe??

Enjoy this 1979 video of Loudon Wainwright III performing Motel Blues, one of the classics that featured in his Dublin set:

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