“Ever get the feeling we’re all vampires?” Loudon Wainwright asks the sold-out audience in the small performance venue at HopMonk in Novato. He’s referencing the streaks of sunlight squeezing into the room around the edges of the blackout curtains that cover the windows. It’s a matinee show with a 1pm start time, which must be unusual enough for the 73-year-old folk legend that he jokes about his “broad daylight” performance several times during his 90-minute set.
Despite the early start time, Wainwright brought Saturday Night Energy to Novato. He combined dramatic readings of personal essays with his trademark lyrical mastery – even singing a capella at times. With more than 50 years of releasing records under his belt, his catalog runs deep – and with a career that has spanned writing, acting, and songwriting, he has a lot of tools in his toolbelt to pull the audience into his mind.
Many of Wainwright’s best-known songs are about family, and he opened the set with a song that I believe is called “Lucy Said Hat.” It’s a moving and funny reflection of a father pondering why – of all words in the world – his daughter’s first word was “hat.” I had never heard the song before, but after about 45 seconds my jaw entered the “dropped position that it would hold for the brunt of the show.
The truth is, Loudon Wainwright III is an artist I was aware of prior to the show. I’d heard a handful of his songs and liked them. I was also familiar with some of his small roles in TV and movies. But I had never given him the attention that I now see he deserves. Since HopMonk can’t seat more than 250 people, It’s safe to say I’m not the only person guilty of this oversight.
Fortunately for those like myself who were only partially initiated with Wainwright, his use of readings and storytelling helped us quickly connect his music with his life. We learned of the deep wound he feels from the passing of his father, and the endless love he has for his kids. We also saw a hint – without the slightest bit of bitterness – of the rejection he’s felt during his 50-year career in which he’s flirted with mainstream fame, but never quite taken it home.
His lyrics and songwriting aren’t the only reason my jaw was dropped. Time has not degraded his voice, and his range is impressive. If there’s a difference between his singing today and on his 1972 release, Album III, I couldn’t notice it.
It’s a voice that can give goosebumps when deployed to its fullest potential. In “Surviving Twin,” he sings of his complex relationship with his father with hard-strumming, punk rock energy. At times his voice projects through his nose like Dylan, and at other times he growls like Springsteen. “Although my father’s dead and gone, I’m his surviving twin,” he sang – and the audience became suspended in a magic stillness as the last strums of his guitar rang out in the venue.
I left the show moved, and convinced that the Pantheon of great folk singers isn’t complete without Wainwright. Like his contemporaries including Springsteen, John Prine, and Guy Clark, he has a way with words that’s clever, playful, and deeply impactful. At HopMonk, we were lucky to get an up-close look at a legend who doesn’t seem anywhere near finished with his already storied career.
Loudon Wainwright at HopMonk, Novato CA. February 1, 2020