By Bobby Reed | Published December 2020
Pop-culture aficionados who recognize the name Loudon Wainwright III might know him as a wry singer-songwriter, an actor, an acclaimed memoirist or a musical patriarch with numerous children who are performers, including Rufus Wainwright. But few fans view him purely as a vocal stylist, a role that he enthusiastically embraces on I’d Rather Lead A Band, a collaboration with retro practitioners Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks. The program features songs from the 1920s and ’30s—typical fare for Giordano’s talented crew.
Wainwright and Giordano have known each other for years, having worked together on music for Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator, and then again on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Here, the Nighthawks coax charming vocal performances out of Wainwright, who is well suited to sing witty ditties like the title track (penned by Irving Berlin). Wainwright does a fine job eliciting smiles as he sprints through a razzle-dazzle rendition of “How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ The Birds, Tellin’ The Bees)” and uses growls for punctuation in the comedic “You Rascal You (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead).”
More revelatory and satisfying, however, is Wainwright’s sincere treatment of heartbreaking lyrics. “More I Cannot Wish You” (from the musical Guys and Dolls) packs an intense, emotional wallop that few would expect from the man who scored the 1972 novelty hit “Dead Skunk.” Listeners will reach for a tissue as Wainwright sensitively interprets Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s ballad “A Perfect Day,” elongating vowel sounds as he croons, “Memory has painted this perfect day/ With colors that never fade/ And we find at the end of a perfect day/ The soul of a friend we’ve made.”
Wainwright offers a straightforward version of “A Ship Without A Sail,” the tale of a lovelorn protagonist. Reflecting on the Rodgers & Hart tune in the liner notes, he writes, “Check out the 1959 Tony Bennett black-and-white TV clip on YouTube. Tony is singing the song in a spiffy Italian tailored suit, but the director has him situated indoors on the deck of some kind of simulated, fully rigged windjammer. At the very least Mr. Benedetto should have been sporting an eye patch.”
In his musical performances and in his prose, that mixture of quirky quips and emotional depth is part of the reason that Wainwright, 74, still has the ability to surprise us.